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The Collective

By Lisa Robertson

A resurgent energy pulses into shimmering expression in a city, a room, a street, beneath certain trees, when necessity sends acute though necessarily covert signals. Clearly there must be more than one person or the frequency can’t alight. The reception isn’t willed. The receivers emanate a superb, almost obscene, attractive force having to do with their absolute disrespect for the ordinary sinecures. Only in retrospect does it appear that fate plays a role in the swerve-like transmission. The receivers of this synchronic worthiness distribute the communal moment of an insurrection across their sentences. The resultant vibrations alter the shape of cognition. This has to do with people’s speech, its self-authorization, its communal autonomy. In retrospect I see their protest as collective ceremony, although they themselves would have definitively scorned the notion.  Their values were narrowly secular. But terms they violently rejected as insufficiently materialist can now become useful, because the collective can’t be described with true precision from within the field of their own vocabulary. An outer vantage is needed. So I’ll return to them now the odours and the ceremonies and the ritual protocols their radical self-identity occluded. I’ll indulge in the praise of their utter vulgarity.

I was never a founder. For certain periods I was absent. My interpretation of events corresponds to my own heightened, even hackneyed, desire for a story. I never felt really equal to the magnetism of my companions. This account is quite wrong factually.

As for the forms of protest—often they were unrecognizable, except belatedly. The most stringent protest evades spectacle, nonchalantly preserving its transformative force for the propitious moment, the most apt and unsuspecting initiates, the casually secretive gathering. Some of them believed the resurgence pertained to syntax, and adored repeating that word. Some believed in the complicated and conflictual process of group consensus as a model for change. Yet who they kissed or didn’t, how long the empties sat, the fruit-flies hovering above them, the way the notebooks splayed across the stained blue carpet for days at a time, the books never returned to the library and the books found lying on sidewalks, the borrowing and filching and thrifting, the use of Letraset, glue stick and carbon paper in their quotidian rituals, the Smith Corona Selectric that came after the loud manual, the placement of the folded bath towel under the manual late at night to protect the shared wooden house from staccato retort, the use of roach chalk on thresholds. . . these exigencies necessarily infiltrated their grammar. And grammar pertained not only to linguistic coherence and distribution and its reinvention, but to community and domestic form.  They practiced the evasion of enforced subordination in favour of horizontal structures of distribution, composition and exchange.  Their task was very large, like a decades-long emotional science project. They believed they would be endlessly robust; they believed the same for their texts.

Actions create language in the present at the same time that their historical traces paradoxically remain latent within language across long durations. I think language is a mobile, immaterial archive of a very long history of human gesture. The collective linguistically seized the paradoxical status of the universal commune; now, because in their shabby neighbourhoods they moved into then-unknown social futures, because they made poems from these movements, intense collective potentials hover as forms in the present. These forms animate the knowledge that the poem is the opposite of capital.

From the present point of view, it might seem that what the collective produced, and what remains of both its covert and its gregariously public activities is a catalogue of linguistic and intellectual artifacts: the poems, essays, journals, chapbooks, and various paper ephemera that will show up in personal and institutional archives, or slip from the pages of casually retrieved volumes of American Language poets, or Frankfurt School theorists, or Montreal feminists, as well as the concepts associated with these movements and texts. All this will remain in circulation for at least the near future. But now I believe that what the collective produced most importantly was a mode of autonomous, plural existence. Deeply, almost like animals, they understood how to live together. They made for a moment a precariously inhabitable social sculpture. Since a way of living is the more evasive and inconspicuous artifact, more evanescent than the texts and material detritus, it is what I wish to describe. This living shall be traced through bodily memories of gestures, of caresses, of mythic spills, the charged air in certain rooms, the movement of thoughts and objects and texts across neighbourhoods, transformations in relationships and self-perception and recognition. How do people find each other, recognize afresh the secretive necessity, proliferate and associate with almost painfully new ideas? How do they make situations for one another’s most exigent and elegant strangeness? How do these spaces exist in contradictory relation to the dominant histories and economies, evading, for dizzying spans, the oppressive propaganda of institutional assimilation? What is transmission? Must transmission be unbroken or regular in order to be actual? I think not. It will fountain, unannounced, unanticipated, by means of desire.

If there was conflict, it was because of the complex nature of the desire that indeed manifested itself in an irregular continuousness. Part of their work was to learn how to recognize new desire, and carefully to separate it from hegemonic compulsion. That was an ongoing task. It was sometimes tiring. They drank and they puked and they judged and often they were not kind. They enjoyed it. They often didn’t like things. There was conflict because there were many desires, erotic imaginations of new forms of intellection, interlocution, composition, and political movement in the city. To bring these multiple desires into temporary resonance was the repeating collective task. Fights could erupt. In this way an undulant social harmonics was composed, a vibration that provided a buzzing ground for the individual compositions. The collective made a space where the extremities of a multifocal yearning were sheltered by the shared belief in its political necessity.  This was a value. Tent-like, its space needed to be repeatedly reinstated, re-erected, since the materials, structure and dimensions underwent permanent improvisation, as thought veered, as the city transformed, as the economy mushroomed. They dissociated the political from the economic without abandoning the critique of materiality and its relation to power. But their living-together opened the certainty that a part of political practice is immaterial.

I’m insisting on the word desire because of the feeling that was in the air in those shabby rooms, both in the collective spaces—the meeting rooms, bookshops, galleries, and bars—and in the apartments the poets moved among. Their rooms were livid with sparks. They rendered defunct the boundaries between the intellectual, the political, the aesthetic, and the erotic. Who kissed whom, who proofed whose texts, who collaborated in what studios, who moved in together, which bands made their ears ring for days after the concerts, who fought at kitchen and bar tables over the vocabulary of political analysis—I can’t separate these queries from my imagination of those spaces.  They enjoyed the sensation of being impassioned by an idea; they throve in the defensive ambiance. Ambiguity, cathexis, and dispute were expressions of collective love and hate, where love and hate changed places with always unanticipated thoroughness. Any evening, any meeting, any table could achieve the character of an eruption. I heard that somebody punched someone as they smoked on the street between readings. One wrote scotch-tape sonnets. The other invented virtual coalitions. One is still working; the other has disappeared.

As well as disappearance, shared boredom was a content. They passed much time each month hunched over long brown formica tables, hung over, folding 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper twice, to fit into business envelopes, as the scent of stale beer drifted from corners. Those were the press releases, typed on Selectric, scarred by white-out, their authors decided by consensus at the long, frequent, meandering meetings, as were the rosters of readers, lecturers, workshop leaders, panel conveners, and so forth.

The collective expression was contingent on leisure as a rescued value. Beyond financial and demotic metrics, they made time to spend together, and time to individually think. This time had a particular stretchiness, an opacity, an intensely deregulated quality. It was synthesized among thinking bodies. Late starts, over-long readings, closing down bars, thence to crowded kitchen tables and 2AM call-in beer delivery, the long sleep-ins, the sleep-overs on hard futons and sprung couches, the afternoon reading-groups or editorial meetings extending again to the small hours of the following morning, spontaneous road-trips to Seattle or Portland to ferry visiting poets, lying at border-crossings, deferred degrees, unconventional domestic structures, suspension of reproduction, underemployment, non-profit work, chosen self-employment and free-lancing, low rent, welfare, sharing: they made themselves time-rich through the avoidance or lack of conventionally defined work. And here I should mention that their unstymied reproductive self-determination, via free and open access to birth control and abortion, played an important part in the advancement of poetical agendas. This access was enabled by still other collectives—The Vancouver Women’s Health Collective, and the Pine Free Clinic occupied cluttered upstairs spaces that didn’t feel dissimilar to the ones the poets frequented. If the work of thinking together was gloriously careening onwards, it’s because the reproductive labour of capital was ignored, in as many ways as possible. The collective produced leisure, willfully. Leisure had specific textures—worn-out, silk-thin band t-shirts under mended over-alls, plaid on damp plaid, Styrofoam cups of Kelowna wine, sentences without subordination. Leisure anticipated new composition. It opened the possibility that language belongs to those who divert its energies towards the multiplication of collective joy.

As resurgent as it surely was, as synchronic in its expression of a recursive communal necessity, there is something particular about the historical time of the collective—it surged into being in 1984 in its province as the government was systematically replacing responsibility towards citizens with the overarching, non-responsive rationality of capital.  They did not then know the term neo-liberalism. They called it Capital. A rural university in the interior of the province was closed down because it failed to produce profit. I recall how weird and irrational this politically constructed reason then seemed. The students quickly understood the danger, without realizing that such edicts would accumulate into the single banal and smothering fabric now termed global. Protests, letter-writing, and fund-raising readings followed. The government wouldn’t budge; the arts programme in the mountains folded. The disbanded students regrouped independently from the recognizable institutions. They moved to the city, associated themselves with the artists, found a cheap downtown space, installed a telephone, a desk, and a meeting table. They researched new funding structures, found a pro-bono leftwing lawyer, and succeeded in acquiring a non-profit status. They bought a few dozen black wooden folding chairs. They formed a mailing list, and sent out press releases. They taught each other how to write grants. They taught each other how to read and how to argue. And they did argue. They documented everything in bulging spiral-bound ledgers, in poems, and on cassette-tape.

Henceforth the collective traced an irregular path, in shifting nodes of six or ten members, and audiences of one to several dozen, depending. The site drifted among several upstairs spaces, most within a three-block radius, in a poor neighbourhood which back then didn’t have a name. They shared crappy storefronts with galleries or bookshops. Lulls and disquietudes and uncertainties were interspersed with unparalleled intensity and rushes of rigorous excitement and consequent activity, continuing in this way for around 30 years, collective members holding on, disappearing, announcing and renouncing one another until, grants tapering off, no longer able to afford to rent a meeting space, its library in storage, its archive shunted off to the university special collections, it dwindled and fizzled. I recently heard in an email from a longtime member that the collective is now defunct. Defunct was his word.

Here I want to consider that the apparent failure of the collective is actually a condition of potent latency. In the way that the Paris Commune of 1871 expressed afresh an altered form of eighteenth-century revolutionary citizenship, which itself responded to the brief English Revolution of the seventeenth-century, future communes will announce themselves in manifestations as yet unrecognizable. Resurgent collectivity will burst afresh when an intensity stumbles on a snag in the machinations of the political economy, and people decide on a dime to coax open that potent flaw to create a site. Continuity must be irregular in order to effectively cluster the potencies of linguistic subjectivity and political life apart from capital’s metrics. Continuity must be vulgar.

The duration of the collective, from 1984 until 2016, is the period that saw the deepening and zenith of the political and administrative expression of neoliberalism, globally, and also particularly in the real estate markets of their city, a place historically determined by impolitical and socially violent real estate practices since its colonial “founding” on indigenous territories in 1886. For a long time the financial colonization was incomplete, but I could say that now the price of everything has made leisure defunct. In the current city any residual underemployed working class is displaced by the rents.  Bookshops close and discourse narrows. It’s a way of outlawing non-financialized leisure. It isn’t unusual that the collective should have dwindled as the economic rationalization of political life usurped the active practice of the public. It began with such an incipient financialization, in the cauterization of the role of higher education; it ended at what appears to be the new liberal economy’s full realization. The fabrication of a description of this 30-year moment will yield information about the relationship of subjectivity and its formations and movements to neo-liberal determinations of political personhood. I use the word subjectivity in a resolutely collective, un-private, and non-possessive sense, considering that it is the historical energy that travels between voices. For three decades the collective exponentially expressed and opened the incompletion and inefficiency of the liberal state, by producing new forms of linguistic subjectivity. No take-over is ever entire.

Now I think that the collective’s most important trait was its vehement resistance, coupled with its gregarious linguistic inventiveness. They were resisting the totalizing movement of capital and its usurpation of both individual and collective time, but they were resisting by widely varying means: Marxist class critique, avant-garde experiment, conceptual rigor, feminist rejections of gendered hierarchy, woman-centered editing practices, queer identity explosions, post colonial and anti-racist actions. Some used images, or alcohol, or archives, or housing, or sex as the resistant material, experiencing these inseparably from language. Myriad groupings of identifications and practices ripped through and animated the collective fabric. Part of what this new subjectivity showed them was the absolute profanity of happiness, and the existence of that happiness outside of duration. Resistance became a form of life, a form of lived co-existence. This form of life included the structure of group conversations, the improvised ways decisions were made and tasks were allotted, the manner in which records were kept and events and meetings were documented, how a generous unspoken agreement to take each person’s intellect completely seriously underwrote the most glorious arguments, conflicts and inventions, as well as the ways ideas moved or were blocked between smaller friendship dyads or triads and the larger group. It would include the ways they cared for one another’s health and appetites, the ways they helped each other’s animals and plants and households, the kitchen haircuts they excelled in, the thrifted garments they exchanged, the various textures of relationship with other collectives and groups. Most of them survived. Many of them later scattered. Some returned. The collective translated communal time to the radically leisured time of the poem.

A question remains open. What is the relation between the poem and a form of life? What are the terms and means of this vital translation? I believe that this is the query that the collective elaborated and refined. That immaterial phalanstery still guides the trajectory of my own activities in poetry.



Lisa Robertson was a member of Vancouver’s Kootenay School of Writing Collective through the nineties. She now lives in France. Her most recent book is 3 Summers, from Coach House Books. This spring she is the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Emily Carr University, in Vancouver.

An earlier version of “The Collective” was presented at The Concept of Vancouver conference at Brock University, in Fall 2016.


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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, April 24th, 2017 by Lisa Robertson.