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Executing the Authority of Roland Barthes: A Recombinant Theory Manifesto

By Joel Katelnikoff.


For the past year, I have been working on Inhabitations: A Recombinant Theory Project, a growing series of essays on poetry and poetics, in which I rework the material of contemporary avant-garde poets, using techniques of cut-up / remix / montage in order to 1) refract the writers’ concepts; 2) speak through the writers’ language and syntax, and 3) produce my own metanarrative of reading, writing, and recombination.

The first essay in the series is a prototype, based on the theoretical writing of Roland Barthes. I have chosen Barthes as a starting point because of my admiration for his concepts and his style: he reads while looking up from his book, hallucinates what he desires, and dreams to know an alien language and to not understand it. He stars the text, breaks it, imposes abrasions upon its fine surface. You cannot speak on such a body of work, you can only speak in it, in its fashion, enter into a desperate plagiarism. Barthes says that writing “holds the threat of a secret,” and later reveals: “I want you to know that I am hiding something from you.” In Barthes’ work, critic becomes poet, reading becomes an artistic performance, and writing may never be furnished with a final signified, but only subjected to an explosion of signification.

I start this Inhabitation process by rereading seventeen of Roland Barthes’ books, flagging certain key phrases that seem to conceptually resonate with the mandate of the project (e.g. “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”), and others that are inspiring in their imagery and syntax (e.g. “if you hammer a nail into a piece of wood, the wood has a different resistance according to the place you attack it”).

Once I have transcribed all of these textual materials into a single document, I cut the physical page into pieces, placing these pieces alongside one another in order to produce new arrangements, seeing only combinations of language that were not present in the original text. These combinations generate new possibilities for perceiving Barthes’ own critical concepts, and for appreciating his phrasing and imagery. Through this process, every emergent phrase is authored in an interzone between Barthes and myself:

Begin by setting out boxes; give the text a corruptible and mortal substance; produce an encyclopaedia of inverted commas; liberate what might be called a self-devouring momentum; extend as far as the eye can reach.

I transcribe the most exciting recombinant aphorisms into a fresh document, and when I have compiled a certain quantity of material (with the Barthes essay, 8400 words; with more recent essays, 35000+ words), I enter into an editorial process, during which I cut the majority of what I have produced, while also identifying thematic and conceptual trends that have begun to emerge from the process. I montage the most relevant aphorisms into new sequences, so as to simultaneously produce a critical commentary, a narrative sequence, and a symbolic arc. Each essay requires about five hundred hours of labour, but the project’s greatest success is to be found within this intensive process.

Like Barthes, what I enjoy in reading is not directly a text’s content or even its structure. To be with the one I love and to think of something else: this is how I have my best ideas, how I best invent what is necessary to my work. Every word is a Pandora’s box from which flies out every possibility of signification and perception; recombinant theory celebrates this overflow. The goal is not to place a constraint upon language, but to invent new possibilities for textual engagement; structurally, there is no obligation for it to stop.

Recombinant theory executes (rejects) the authority (territorialization) of discourse that has been imposed by oppressive institutions (corporate, academic, social, cultural), while simultaneously executing (enacting) the authority (inscription) of the liberated reader and writer, denaturalizing the fixity of textual materials and allowing them to signify within new spectrums of possibility. Recombinant theory refuses to seal discourse, instead treating it as an ongoing and participatory system from which nobody can be excluded.

I want to generate language with infinite freedom and with emphasis and conviction: I want to refract, rather than pretending to reflect, engaging in processes that transform each oeuvre’s spectrum of potential signification. The hybrid critical-poetic mode allows me to issue statements that I am not forced to be certain of, but which I can say with sincerity, and which I can say without the need to immediately disagree with myself.

Inhabitations refuses to territorialize a text (refuses to supplement it with an authorized reduction). The project’s critical mode, inspired by plagiarism and piracy, simulates one of many possible experiences of engaging with an object in motion, refusing to fix meaning, refusing false certainty, refusing copyright regimes, refusing theology, refusing bigotry. Recombinant theory wanders through corpora, not to impose maps upon them, but to adventure within them, attempting to liberate what might be called a self-devouring momentum, extending as far as the eye can reach. In this sense, we can never exhaust the possibilities of the text, but we can only ever exhaust ourselves.




Joel Katelnikoff is working on Inhabitations: A Recombinant Theory Project. The project will engage with the textual corpora of twenty contemporary writers of poetry and poetics, adapting techniques conventionally associated with plagiarism and copyright violation in order to develop new collaborative methods of critical and poetic writing. All of these Inhabitations are produced with the consent and support of the original writers. So far, the project has produced collaborations with Christian Bök, Erín Moure, Fred Wah, Vanessa Place, Johanna Drucker, and M NourbeSe Philip, and it will soon include collaborations with Steve McCaffery, Sawako Nakayasu, Lyn Hejinian, Craig Santos Perez, Lisa Robertson, Craig Dworkin, Marie Annharte Baker, Darren Wershler, Charles Bernstein, and K Silem Mohammad, as well as some twentieth-century influences, including Wittgenstein and Borges. Further details on the project can be found at inhabitations.com. Work-in-progress is regularly posted on Twitter at: @inhabitations.


This essay incorporates textual materials from “The Death of the Author,” Empire of Signs, “From Work to Text,” A Lover’s Discourse, The Pleasure of the Text, S/Z, Writing Degree Zero, “Writing Reading,” and “Inhabitation: Roland Barthes: ‘they are quotations without inverted commas’.”

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 27th, 2016.