The Community of Readers

My life, with Nietzsche for company, is a community. My book is this community. – Georges Bataille

 

The modern novel emerged as a popular art form toward the
end of the 18th Century, when the bourgeoisie had become the
dominant class in Europe; it is not surprising, then, that it is
the favoured recreational reading of our own time, when the
cultural dominance of that class is complete. Unlike the older
art forms of painting and sculpture, which produce a unique
work of art for one owner and relatively few viewers, the novel,
which loses nothing from its reproduction, is widely circulated
and easily affordable. As a cultural form, therefore, it conforms
exactly to the requirements of the commodity form. It is not
only in its mode of production, however, that the novel is the
art form most suited to today’s consumer society. Invariably the
work of an individual author, the novel is made to be consumed
by an individual reader, whose silent concentration and
imaginary participation in plot and character has become the
characteristic form of cultural consumption under late
capitalism. The fantasy of individual freedom on which
consumer society turns is harmless to the economic realities
that drive it when that freedom is confined to the pages of a
book. From this point of view, the triumph of the novel was part
of a historical sea change that has seen us drawn away from
collective forms of cultural activity − from the public house,
dance hall, music venue, theatre space and sports arena − and
deposited, silently, in private and alone, in front of our
television screens, music consoles, entertainment systems, play
stations and laptops.

 
It was not always like this, however. Before the advent of
universal literacy and the private, interior world that it opened
to consciousness, reading and listening − whether to the
household patriarch, the religious pulpit, the public orator, the
travelling player, the village elder, the courtly bard or, further
back, to the storytellers of the ancients and beyond − was
always a collective activity. And of all living forms of writing, it
is poetry – which is less a form than the spirit which inhabits it
– that most strongly retains this connection to the past: above
all, perhaps, in that poetry is best heard not silently, in the
head of the reader, but aloud, in the mouths of others. Reading
connects us not only with the author of the work but also with
the community of our fellow readers, from which a silent
reading, exemplified by the novel form, has separated us.
Indeed, it is this community of voices that composes the vast
tapestry of narratives from whose strands the individual text is
woven. A work of art or literature – although promoted as such
by a culture industry formed around its ownership – is not
created in the vacuum from which the individual genius
springs, fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, but
encountered at the intersection of the innumerable threads,
past and present, that go to make any given culture.

 
In order to reverse this movement from the collective to the
individual − which is at once historical, social and cultural − we
are proposing an occasion for a collective reading and listening,
the aim of which is to realise the latent and silent community of
reading to which we all belong as a vocal and active community
of readers. To this end, we are exhibiting a complete set of
issues of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the monthly periodical in
which the relationship between poetry and community has
been explored over the past five years. The format of each issue
has varied considerably over this period: sometimes an
anthology of texts and images on a single theme; at other times
a new translation or presentation of a work by a single author;
occasionally an extended reflection on different aspects of
community; or, with increasing regularity, the preparation for
an event in which the theme of community is explored in
practice. These events have typically taken the form of a
collective reading of texts, but they have also engaged in
more complex and ritualized activity centred around these
readings.

 
In exploring these relationships – between poetry
and community, community and reading, reading and ritual,
ritual and poetry – this periodical has sought to be not only a
site of reflection but itself the initiate for the formation of
community. Before it is anything else, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
is the trace of the formation, dissolution and reformation of that
community through three separate incarnations: initially on the
model of a religious community; then, when that failed, as a
poetry-reading group; and finally – although others may still
succeed it – in its current form, which is still emerging. This
exhibition, therefore, is not an attempt to present this
periodical as a work of art: to do so would only serve to objectify
and ultimately extinguish the spirit of community that drives it.
Rather, this exhibition offers another opportunity for that
community to form around this collective act of reading. In this
understanding of the exhibition space, the booklets are
displayed not as the trace of a creative activity which ended
with their production, but as the impetus to the creation of
something new, to which the reader is invited to contribute.
Visitors to the exhibition and readers of the periodical,
past and present, are invited to select a text from the issues
displayed and give a reading of it within the time and the space
of the exhibition – which is to say, here and now. To enable
their easier reference, as well as providing an accessible
overview of the contents of this publication, these texts have
been listed in the catalogue by individual issue and author.
And of course, since this is an invitation to a voluntary
participation, visitors are also welcome to read a text which is
not included in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but which accords
with its spirit and the themes it has explored. By soliciting
these readings, we hope that the exhibition will be an occasion
for the formation of a community whose existence will span the
duration of the event – if no longer – and of which the readings
will be no more than the echo and trace.

 
Through this exhibition strategy, we want to distinguish
this publication from an artistic, literary or creative practice
driven – as so much of contemporary art is – by the
production of ever new objects in response to the market’s
demand for new commodities. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by
contrast, focuses what creativity it brings into play on the
moment of its consumption: not the passive consumption of
the complete and finished work of art, but the moment in
which whatever poetry resides within the work is brought
into existence. It tries to find new contexts in which to
approach the already existing work, new ways in which to
read it, new voices with which to speak it. The booklets,
therefore, are not the aim and end of the creative process,
but a stage in a cycle which reaches its conclusion and new
beginning in their consumption by the reader. It is this
moment, and not the material object, that is the focus of the
events for which these booklets are produced, and which we
see in ritualistic terms: collective, performative, celebratory,
inclusive, collaborative, interactive, intoxicating, ecstatic,
transient – lasting only the time of its realisation. This is as
far as possible from the silent and passive consumption of
today’s cultural spectacles, whether the dirge-like procession
through the museum, the silent and immobile stare in the
theatre or auditorium, or the social-butterfly whirl and
chatter around the art gallery. These are the spaces of
commerce, exchange, business, trade, advertising,
promotion, networking – profane spaces, in other words, in
which the art or literary object is the mere pretext for the
dirty work of business, the flogging of artist and product to
those with a deep appreciation of money and not the faintest
sense of poetry.

 
Let me be clear on this distinction. We do not count
ourselves among those who – in the phrase of the
businessman – ‘make a living’ by making what they call ‘art’;
we are not buyers and sellers of the art product; we are not
critics, promoters or advertisers of the art commodity; we do
not see a profession in what we believe should be engaged in
by all; we do not seek to make a commodity of the obscure
yearnings of the human heart, or turn what marked our
emergence from the human animal into another moment in
the circulation of capital. What we are attempting to create
places the emphasis on the participants in these events and
their engagement with the texts we read, with the space in
which we read them, with those we read them with. What is
new is not the object we do not make but the moment we
seek to bring into existence, which is not a product, is not for
sale, can’t be bought, has no price, cannot be determined in
advance or even anticipated, and has multiple authors, none
of which owns even their own contribution. We reject
copyright – the absurd and contemptible attempt to own
speech, whether written on the page or issuing from our
mouths. It is the immateriality of the spoken word, its
ungraspable and fleeting existence, that makes its utterance
a spoken defiance of the order of material things by whose
possession this world presumes to judge us.

 
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, therefore, is distributed free of
charge, and has never made any money from its production.
Indeed, insofar as it is a gift, it has only ever made a loss.
Each issue of the periodical carries the following notice, itself
taken from the first issue of Lautréamont’s Poésies: ‘This
continuing publication has no price. Each subscriber decides
upon his subscription himself. He gives, moreover, only what
he wishes.’ Its contents may be reproduced free of copyright,
with the single condition that, along with the identification of
the author, they carry this absence of copyright in their own
reproduction. What we invite readers to give – not in return
but freely – what the nature of their subscription will be, is
for them to decide: – but it lies outside an economy of
exchange.

 
The Ancient Egyptians made the correct intonation of the
voice the condition for speaking the truth. And when you put
yourself in the service of the poem, when you become the
mouthpiece for the written word, when you own the words
you speak – not as an object but as the expression of what
belongs to all of us, when those words become yours in the
act of saying them, when you wait to hear them spoken in
your mouth as you would in the mouths of others, when they
speak through you, when you are one with your breath –
then the words written on the page find the medium through
which they take flight in the human voice, and the profane
stuff of everyday communication becomes the material of a
sacred speech. It is an identifying characteristic of poetry that
this dissolution of the speaking self in the spoken word is
accompanied, on the rare occasions on which it happens, by
the tears of joy that are, perhaps, the clearest sign of its
presence. Indeed, were to do so not to risk profaning and drying
up its wells, one might even say that these tears are the mark
of a reading that has conjured the goddess of poetry into our
presence, touching our eyelids with her cold fingers, and
pressing her red-stained lips to our pale and stuttering
tongues. Poetry – let me whisper in conclusion – should be
approached under a reverent and voluntary silence. And the
breaking of that silence should be spoken with all the
solemnity and joy one imagines presiding over ancient rites
of invocation. Poetry should be a forest dance in a circle
joined by the hands of the celebrants around a burning altar.
Above all, the reading of poetry should seek to carry the
dancers to that border-realm, just beyond the light of the
fire, between words and silence.

 
In this way − through this collective contribution to what,
rather than the booklets themselves, is the true content of this
exhibition − we hope to overcome the division, on which the
culture industry relies for its continued existence, between the
artist and the viewer, the producer and the consumer, the
creator and the spectator, the author and the reader, the
individual and the collective. This is not only a matter of
exhibition strategies. It is this division, which reduces the bulk
of contemporary cultural activity to the status of entertainment,
and our participation in it to that of paying customers, that
contributes to maintaining our status as the passive subjects of
language. Indeed, this passivity is the defining relationship of
the individual to a society in which we have become the silent
readers of our own life stories. In contrast to which, and
refusing this passive role, is the community we hope to form
around this and future events. Community, contrary to what
we are told, is not our inherited relationship to the social fabric
into which we are born − to family, class, gender, race, religion
or nationality – but an elective participation in the creative
activity by which that social fabric, and our allotted place in it,
is unravelled and new relationships imagined and formed.
Reading, which is the always collective act from which the text
is woven, is emblematic of this act of imagining; reading aloud
the occasion for the formation of that which, however fleetingly,
emerges from it: − the community of readers.

 

Simon Elmer

To find out more about THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE and the community of readers, contact Simon Elmer via Facebook.

 


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