Camelia Elias is the founder and editor-in-chief of EyeCorner Press, an independent publisher devoted to printing a host of difficult-to-classify writings, including creative academic writing, and poetic fragments and aphorisms. EyeCorner publishes works in English, Danish, and Romanian, as well as bilingual editions. This multilingual approach gels with the publishing house’s fragmentary philosophy, as well as its origins as a collaborative venture between universities in three nations. In addition to her editorial duties, Elias is also one of EyeCorner’s authors; her latest work Pulverizing Portraits is a monograph on the poetry of Lynn Emanuel. Elias is Associate Professor of American Studies at Roskilde University in Denmark and she blogs at FRAG/MENTS. Elias was kind enough to talk with me over a series of emails; in our discussion she defines creative criticism, discusses the value in being open to error, accounts for hostility against deconstruction and post-structuralism in academia, and explains why it doesn’t hurt to throw the word “fuck” into a textbook now and then.
Biblioklept: EyeCorner Press is somewhat unusual, even for an indie publisher — a joint venture between universities in Denmark, Finland, and the US that focuses on creative criticism. How did the press come into being?
Camelia Elias: The press came into being as an act of anarchism, if you like, a form of resistance against the idea that academic work must be measured not only against its own standard, but also against the standard that idiotic governments sets for measuring, and hence controlling, intelligence, creativity, and freedom. In 2007 I was editing new research papers written by colleagues and associates of the Institute of Language and Culture at Aalborg University with view to publication by the Faculty of Humanities at AU. A new change in leadership also brought about a new set of ideas. These were rigidly formulated along the newly established injunction passed down by the Danish government, which dictated that all Danish academics must now prioritize publishing with Oxford and Harvard. Without getting into the silly and imbecilic arguments produced for the sustainability of such a demand in reality, the fact remains that many heads of department throughout our Danish universities tried to implement the new regulations literally. The good publishing folks at Aalborg were told that Research News (the publishing venue) was going to close, and no, as the justification for it ran, this was not because the papers were not good enough, but 1) because publishing new research under the aegis of the department was likely to have the undesirable effect of preventing the researchers from expanding their range of publishing possibilities – and hence not consider Oxford and Harvard – and 2) there will be no money for it anymore. Few of us tried to make obvious the stupidity pertaining to the first argument – bad idea, as bosses generally don’t want to be told that they have limited visions – and as to the second argument, pertaining to the precarious, or rather by then non-existent financial support, a few of us also tried to suggest that we could go ‘on demand’ and even work ‘con amore’ for it, which would involve no expenses. The answer was still no. So, there we were, with a few manuscripts in the pipeline and no possibility of getting them out. As the editor of these papers, I felt a responsibility not only towards the writers but also towards the readers who had bothered to peer-review the works. I decided to start EyeCorner Press in my own name, but retain the ties we had in terms of publishing jointly with a few other partner universities. With Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia, we had just finalized a volume on transatlantic relations (aesthetics and politics) within Cultural Text Studies Series published by Aalborg University Press. We are happy to call them our close allies. University of Georgia, Gwinnett, and Oulu University in Finland followed suit and so did Roskilde University, which became my new working place not long after the Aalborg ‘situation’.
On what guided us in the establishment of the venture, following the need to address the incurable disease of measuring and weighing people’s creative potential against rigid rules, I can say that we decided to let EyeCorner Press dictate its own fate, as it were. We threw in a few ingredients, and we wanted to see what kind of pattern would emerge out of the mix. Here are some of the precepts that suggest what kind of writing we wanted EyeCorner Press to develop in form. These precepts can in fact be seen as guidelines for our authors to consider:
Keep it simple. Write elegantly. Create correspondences.
If you must write textbooks or introductions to this or that concept – à la what is most commercially valuable for Oxford and Harvard – then make sure that you won’t be afraid to say ‘fuck’ a few times, provoke the establishment, or show what an idiotic idea the idea the that the democratization of writing means adopting a non-offensive stance is.
Allow yourself to move with ease between beliefs.
Create improbable scenarios, and the sillier the better. We need more laughter.
‘Know thyself.’ Write for yourself and strangers. Don’t write for peers.
Write for yourself and strangers.
Presume nothing. Assume nothing.
Write for the occasion, even if the occasion means that you will be read by no more that 2 people.
Value ‘nothing’, silence, and the usefulness of the useless in creative academic writing.
Think with the heart and the gut.
B: EyeCorner emphasizes creative criticism. What is “creative criticism”? Why is it important in the current lit-crit landscape?
CE: The importance of creative criticism is also politically determined and linked to the need to counter the illegitimate act of measuring, quantifying, and weighing academic discourse in the age of ‘open source.’ The whole idea with peer-reviewing and gate-keeping is becoming more and more abhorring, and of course impossible to maintain, especially when we can all agree that, if there is knowledge in the world, we need to let it flow, rather than barricade it behind concrete walls. Sure, the ones against the ‘everything goes’ philosophy will do anything to hang on to the moribund tradition of ‘we must not let errors into the world,’ but the way I see it, that merely emphasizes the general stupidity that informs such endeavors. To give you an example, I like to read esoteric and hermetic texts, and what amazes me the most is that it is almost always the case, than not the case, that what we come to appreciate in them is the ‘creative errors’ connected to their reception. For instance, people believed that the Zohar originated with the mystic rabbi Simeon bar Yohai some 2000 years ago. The Kabbalist texts have been greatly inspired by the Zohar, and a good deal of brilliant writing and wisdom has been produced throughout the following centuries. The fact that the historian Gershom Scholem proved that the Zohar was written around 1100 did little to remove the Kabbalists’ enthusiasm for the now ‘fake’ text. The same goes for other texts. The Emerald Tablet and the Golden Dawn Order, all claiming mysterious origins for their foundations, have not suffered from dismissal either, when it was proved that they based their claims on inauthentic sources. What we still appreciate is the ingenuity associated with their building up systems of thought that were not imagined before. In other words, such texts and contexts can be said to have produced a lot of creative criticism, which means rigorous thinking that is not deterred by factual knowledge.
So, perhaps, if we should watch over anything, then, it should be over how to keep the road clear of ‘purity.’ We need to make sure that the erroneous way to knowledge will not be blocked, for it has great potential for the ways in which we think of creative strategies as alternative approaches to all things high and mighty. Shouting Eureka in the ditch of error can often prove to be more valuable than when it is done on top of the mountain of truth. Its value resides in the idea of approach over and above the idea of solution. I find the idea of providing solutions to all things, life and love alike, as thoroughly tedious. What we promote at EyeCorner Press is going through the sewage and seeing sublime light at the end of it. Our intellectual integrity is defined along the philosophy of play, a ludic form of anarchism and fearlessness. We learn more when we don’t issue ultimate and final injunctions against ourselves, sabotaging the very creative spark in the process. Hence, we don’t take ourselves seriously, we don’t presume to change the world, and we are not impressed. The only thing that impresses us is a creative approach, not a solution. The premise for this statement is based on the words of the Ecclesiastes: “this too shall pass.” Assuming this, then, and insofar as everything changes, will it not make more sense, logically speaking, to value approaches more than we value fixed solutions? I should think so. Alas, however, as with many simple and commonsensical things in the world, when it comes to selling, and in spite of solid and rigorous argumentation at the basis, there is never any interest in the creative act that resists offering totalizing solutions. Measured against this parameter, and as we are not a commercial publishing house, we fail as business. Particularly the business of the academic who nowadays is more concerned with how to make himself more relevant to the world, more visible and virile in his impact, and more ‘responsible’ to what happens to future generations. ‘Being responsible’ has become another of those mantras of value in the academia lately, which leaves some of us wondering what the whole fuss is all about. The irony being, of course, that the more the notion of responsibility is talked about, the less of it do we actually get to see enacted honestly. EyeCorner Press is interested in another kind of potency, namely, that which leads to a form of insightful criticism that leaves us in a state of astonishment, open-hearted, and in awe of open ends. In other words, to answer your question, we use creative criticism in the same way that Raymond Federman used to talk about what he termed ‘critifiction.’ We follow his ideas to legitimize our own condition for being in the world, the world of a myriad of texts published by all sorts. Here’s what he says:
“The term critifiction is used because the discourse that follows is critical as well as fictitious; imagination is used in the sense that it is essential in the formulation of a discourse; plagiarism [read play-giarism] because the writing of a discourse always implies bringing together pieces of other discourses; an unfinished endless discourse because what is presented here is open at both ends, and as such more could be added endlessly.” (Critifiction, 1993: 49, author’s emphasis)
B: What titles do you think highlight EyeCorner’s style? What are you guys publishing this year that excites you?
CE: Being a one-woman show, as it were, has its advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage is that, as you don’t rely on external funds for your work, you end up working ‘con amore,’ which basically means that you put in work for EyeCorner Press for free. This is great in terms of getting to exercise your human touch in relation to your peers. It’s not so great when you have to realize that there is a lot more brilliant work out there that you will never know of, let alone get your hands on to publish, simply because you don’t have the time to invest in making discoveries. This ultimately means that you basically define the style of your publishing house entirely according to your own taste, basic intelligence, and economic means.
Conversely, while it may be advantageous to be able to decide everything, you could wish for a situation when you wouldn’t work only with what you commission. Most of our manuscripts are the result of commissioned work, or work that comes our way by way of coincidence. This being said, then, I can thus safely say that what we go for at EyeCorner Press is what I call ‘epistemic creative writing’, or writing that creates a certain kind of knowledge and which does not undermine the very idea of creativity by being merely regimented. Epistemology of creative writing is in fact one area into which I research myself at the moment. So, although our manuscripts can be different in what they aim for, the underlying premise is that they all say something about what we can think of writing that is not only cutting-edge, elegant, and beautiful, but also heuristic, or instructional. In other words, we promote writing that is self-conscious on two levels: about its own aesthetics and about its political message. ‘Political’ here should be understood in terms of its indissoluble relation to art and activism. To give an example, whether novels, poetry, criticism, or philosophy, our books support the idea that mastery of a subject, or devotion to a subject, is at its greatest when it manifests the work of rigorous thinking and discipline. In other words, the style that we go for is one which discloses the dynamic relation between beauty and practice. The more you work with a thought, the more sublime it gets. Spontaneous inspiration is good, but if it’s not channeled properly, it remains inefficient.
I believe in writing for the occasion, and this includes the idea of writing for thought itself. It is for this reason that I myself don’t want to make any distinctions between, say, Rainer J. Hanshe’s novel, The Acolytes, a work about achieving mastery, and the works of theater criticism that George Hunka and Yunus Tuncel have produced. All these works are informed by a rigorous knowledge of the ancient Greeks, the German Romantics, and postmodern discourses of the fragment. The latter two even come in fragments, as each paragraph is numbered, and it is clear that they all celebrate the epistemology of creative thought. Steven Joyce’s Odyssean essays and David Kilpatrick’s work on the sacrificial dramatist as a tragic man also highlight the Greek connection, and so does Gian DiDonna’s work, even though he is more interested in biosophy, rewriting in dramatic form the life of Descartes.
While I would like to say that all this is quite coincidental, the more I muse about the affinities among us, the more I realize that, if it is knowledge that interests us, how we know what we know, and how we disseminate what we know, then it is not so weird that we necessarily all go back to some prehistoric modes of perception. One can see this at work very concretely, and yet quite uncannily manifested as well, in Mark Daniel Cohen’s absolute masterpiece, Coarctate, a kind of a rewrite of Sophocles’ Antigone. Robert Gibbons shows great erudition in his prose poetry and even anticipates books about coffee. Gray Kochhar-Lindgren’s book about the philosophy of coffee thus follows suit by paying tribute to the same old masters, even though he also allows for other ghosts to host more contemporary epistemo-lovers who like to count and build and drink – coffee. In my own books, I nod at the Greeks’ fascination with infinity by making recourse to the area in mathematics that is called complex analysis. The more infinities there are between poetry and math, the better. And yet, my approach is to concretely acknowledge the power of the shekkinah, the dwelling of the presence of the divine in the woman. My premise follows an old-age assumption, though more invisible than visible, that the woman always wins, one way or another. Even the patriarchs come out of a woman. I find it fascinating to see, here, that this notion is supported in other writing that tackles the opposite, namely men who lose, or lose it, as it were. Bent Sørensen’s book on love and loss in Poe is a brilliant and excellent example.
Among the forthcoming books I can emphasize my total excitement at having gotten my hands on a few of Anthony Johnson’s manuscripts. He embodies the very symmetrical eclecticism in our books at EyeCorner Press, in his going from Sanskrit etymologies and the mythical tribe of the ‘Shining Ones’ to Giordano Bruno, imagology, and the plays from the Restoration period. Anthony’s wide range and interests epitomize what we want to achieve: a logocentrism that reminds us of the fact that while it may be true that in the beginning was the Word, the Word spoke of the imageless god. In other words, at EyeCorner Press we are interested in modes of seeing and writing about the invisible. Befittingly, we will also publish this year works by a few women sages. So stay tuned.
B: Do you perceive any hostility toward post-structuralist writing/methods/philosophy, and, if so, how do such hostilities manifest?
CE: I like this question, though, I have to make an effort not to answer it without disclosing general dismay at all rationalists, literalists, and positivists who are convinced that what makes their academic life worth living is the idea of exactitude and promptitude in relation to all things ‘fuzzy.’ The reason why there is hostility towards post-structuralist writing is because such writing allows itself to be imprecise. Of course, and as a general rule, all those against it, don’t bother to ask or look for the motivation behind such ‘imprecision’. And why, well, because one takes one’s name at face value, for you see, if you are a rationalist, a positivist, and a literalist, then, you, by definition, are exempted from having to really engage with all that which does not bear your name. But then, also by definition, if you are a realist, a positivist, and a literalist, then, you will also be self-righteous, and see it as your duty to denounce that which you don’t understand. And so it goes. People have been burnt for having contrary ideas. I myself prefer it when precision interacts with how it manifests itself in some higher order, higher even than itself, and then I like to see how this precision relates to a dynamic system of thought that is ever changing. And that’s all, but mind you, people have been burnt for even less.
All those who dislike writers such as Derrida & co. dislike the idea that our physical reality is really made up not out of a system of certitude but out of a system of probability. The hermeticists, to use them as a good example again, all iconophiles and lovers of symbols, were the first to realize that what makes life and theory interesting is not the way in which a system of thought is put together – and man, they were very good at that – but the way in which a system of thought, built on facts and correspondences, can map onto a system of probability, built of surprises and correspondences. It is also for this reason that most poststructuralists have been accused of not understanding properly the hard sciences – which is really another way of propagating one’s own envy of all those who are not afraid of going beyond the palpable imagination – well, as if imagination can ever be that. In reality, of course, creative academics such as Derrida and Badiou, for instance, do in fact have a very refined comprehension, of, say, what is going on in math and physics. But to arrive at that conclusion, and to understand something of the mechanism of how they use what they know when they go against the monolith of symbolic orders, requires that one reads their books in their entirety, which, alas, is not something that many of the critiquing hordes do.
And then there is the idea of how to institutionalize knowledge, how to chart it according to this and that model, and how to pass it on to the masses. This latter process stems nicely with all projects of neo-enlightenment and the preservation of democracy. I mean, give me a break. I wish someone would spare us the pain of having to endorse such projects, let alone be part of them. As far as I can see, they are all drafted in the name of superficiality disguised as ‘scientific faith.’ Sometimes I fantasize that all those scholars à la last and past centuries, who were well grounded in their own fascination with things that resist immediate comprehension, while publishing books for the sake of keeping up the appearances, in reality, all form secret orders within which it is still allowed to entertain crazy ideas. Derrida did us a major favor by emphasizing that language has an enormously oppressive capacity. Indeed. It’s enough to look around and see how academic environments are now turning into academic ‘communities.’ The discourse involving academic contributions now revolves around suggesting that these contributions need to have a community-service function. I get high blood pressure whenever I hear that now we must all form large networks, and work systematically towards the project of enlightening the masses on this or that. And of course, it is now virtually impossible to become full professor if you cannot demonstrate that you are outwardly oriented, have a research center that is relevant for the community and society at large, and are ready to swear that you actually believe in your own worth as a champion of iconoclasm: ‘off with irrelevant and useless knowledge. The masses demand to know!’ Only, no one bothers to ask the masses what it would like to get. Thus, insofar as an answer is not given, because institutionalized and well adjusted academics on high horses don’t ask, they end up devising strategies of providing the masses with what they presume the masses want – to be more precise, text-books. A quick look at Cambridge University Press’s catalogue discloses very fast that the only thing that sells is text-books, written in bullet form, with the ring of self-help, and a good dose of personal trivia for good measure. One would like to have the masses be able to see that one is not so bad as an academic, sitting up there in some tower, and thinking kooky thoughts. So, to answer your question without stretching it endlessly, I can say that there is a lot of hostility towards all those who suggest that they are traditionalists, more interested in holding on to the dictum non serviam than in the gullibility that goes into the belief that redemption from general stupidity is possible. At EyeCorner Press we’re not interested in propagating views. We’re more interested in seeing what comes our ways, and where what is probable, rather than certain, can take us. A friend of mine, Mark Daniel Cohen, a scholar with high intellectual integrity and author with us once told me: “Those who are like you will find you, and to be of concern to anyone else is humiliating. So too, to be concerned with them.” This statement pretty much sums up what I think of all those who resist creative academic writing.
B: Have you ever stolen a book?
CE: Ha, ha, ha, that’s an easy one. Yes, I have stolen a book. I have stolen many books. Every decade I steal a whole bunch en bloc. Most of them deal with religion, or the history of religious ideas. Call me a heretic.