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Collaborations, Networks, Failures, Weak Ties

Collaborations, Networks, Failures, Weak Ties

“What are some collaborations if not the marriage of minds,” is one introductory provocation with which Jill Ehnenn confronts the reader of her Women’s Literary Collaboration, Queerness, and Late-Victorian Culture.[1] In 2008, when Ehnenn’s book was published, collaboration had already been the topic of a small host of books, articles, and collections; and scholarship has since found ever-newer and more sophisticated ways of describing the emancipatory potential of collaboration as well as the challenges that arise for collaborators and their collaborative art.[2] Ehnenn’s metaphor of marriage alludes to some of these concerns: the desire for shared perspective as well as the hard and sometimes unsuccessful work on a relationship, the harnessing of romantic feeling or desire in order to “(re)produc[e] text” (Women’s Literary Collaboration, 5).

In this cluster, we argue that in modernism, the fragility of collaboration became acute. However, the risks of collaboration have been explored by scholars of collaboration in other periods as well. At the beginning of her book Creative Collaboration, for instance, Vera John-Steiner represented collaborators as people who “face many hardships and reap many joyous rewards.”[3] In John-Steiner’s thinking, challenges need to be overcome as part of the process of collaboration, so that the fruits of this process can be “joyous.” Many collaborations, therefore, generate exciting stories and anecdotes, if their tensions, intentions, work patterns, or hindrances are explored; and perhaps even more so if the finished collaborative product incorporates and represents the struggle over the collaborators’ ideas.

But a collaboration’s faltering or failure may happen on more levels than merely collaborators’ disagreements. Countless possible downsides of collaboration as a happy marriage of minds have been noted, as in Wayne Koestenbaum’s Double Talk, for example: “Whether we call the will that produces a collaborative work inspiration, authority, or diligence, this ‘will’ is shared, sometimes miserably.”[4] Koestenbaum introduces the miserably shared will as a pessimistic yet important element to his understanding of collaboration among male coauthors. In Literary Couplings, Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson acknowledge that collaborative relationships can exhibit “conflicted manifestations,” and that such conflict between collaborators may actually generate more interest in the collaboration (as several contributors to this cluster agree).[5] In Writing Double, Bette London’s study of female literary collaboration, author Marjorie Barnard is quoted as saying “I think collaboration (in creative work) is impossible, but now and then it happens.”[6]

What if, as we propose in this cluster, meaningful collaborative roles in some modernist work need to be found not only for minds set on a common idea, but also for ghosts; or for speed readers in clipping agencies; for non-human agents; or for collaborators who deny, or are denied, full involvement in collaborative processes? Or what if, as Brian Norman asks in his contribution on Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes’s play The Mule-Bone, “failed attempts are equally revealing?” This cluster throws a spotlight on collaborative misery that manifests itself in modernist works’ failure or weak ties.

Collaborations can fail for many reasons. Collaborators may disagree over the importance or character of their contributions and abandon or abort the project, as happened with Hurston and Hughes’s collaboration, as Norman shows. He proposes that it is not the absence of a finished product that signals a failed collaboration, but the “impossible desire to restore a pre-encounter self”. Hurston’s refusal to acknowledge Hughes’s contribution, and Hughes’s move to utilize legal means to establish his involvement are such attempts to disentangle themselves from, or at least clarify the ownership of, their failed collaboration. These attempts flesh out one essential question: Once a collaborator, always a collaborator? One possible response is reflected in the play’s belated premiere in 1991, which highlighted issues of cocreation surrounding The Mule-Bone’s long and tangled history.

In Adrian Paterson’s essay, this situation is turned on its head, insofar as the authors’ will to collaborate was not in doubt in the “sleeps” conducted by George and W. B. Yeats. Rather, it is the supposed presence of ghostly collaborators speaking through George in these sessions early in her marriage to the poet that complicate the couple’s collaboration. The roles of both W. B. and George Yeats shifted during their sessions, but after the sleeps, Paterson argues, “all [W. B. Yeats’s] poetry, prose, and plays calls up, speaks to, questions and cross-questions the dead”, as if this ghostly form of collaboration had needed to continue ever after—if it wasn’t a secretly failed one to begin with.

Dipanjan Maitra’s essay traces and questions collaborators’ proximity as an aspect of collaboration through the “weak ties” in the distributed work surrounding James Joyce’s network of press clipping collectors.[7] Joyce relied both on the “strong” ties with his patron, secretary, and publisher, who subscribed to press clipping agencies for him; and through these three collaborators on the weaker ties with the anonymous, mostly female, workers of international press clipping agencies. Joyce’s intentions—to know what was being printed about him worldwide, and what of this he might use in works such as Finnegans Wake—allow us to rethink the question of “the autonomous (male) artist and his compositional technique,” as Maitra argues.

Networks, here including non-human agents, also inform Colleen McQuillen’s examination of the “radically distributed” collaboration that emerged from a Russian experiment with space and design in 1903, Sovremennoe Iskusstvo (Contemporary Art). In this enterprise, several artists designed separate showrooms in a Saint Petersburg gallery, thus forming an initial, distributed collaboration of weak ties. But McQuillen argues that a second layer of relationship must be acknowledged if this enterprise is to be fully understood: the Latourian network between the designed environment and its human visitors. With the aim to “unsettle anthropocentric views of agency and creativity,” McQuillen invokes Bruno Latour and Michel Callon’s work and the idea that “material agency and human agency cannot be disentangled” in such networks.[8]

If such interactions of collaboration and network test the concepts of both, Jarek Ervin’s examination of an unlikely collaboration of no-wave musicians to create the opera John Gavanti is another way to stake out “collaboration as a problem.” The reason for what here amounted to a shared intention to fail lies in the aesthetics of no-wave, whose representatives (here the bands Mars and DNA) routinely denied that their art was art and that their collaborations were collaborations. In John Gavanti, this manifested into an “anti-opera made in a genreless genre by collaborators who denied that their work possessed a collaborative character,” as Ervin posits. Gleeful and willful failure was the intended outcome of this enterprise, but the opera’s staggering sounds give a new meaning to what it means to fail.

Sarah Terry locates the impossibility and failure of collaboration in fiction, namely in attempts at “musicalization as speculative collaboration” of the characters in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point and E. M. Forster’s Howards End. The focus in these authors’ writing is on the “modernist sense of the collaborative relationship between the act of listening and the expression of the self.” Communication and collaboration (through listening and the transfer of meaning) are constantly at risk of failing, as Terry argues; especially when the characters of these novels seek to “only connect” through music and its contrapuntal play with dissonance and meaning. For Terry this means that we must accept collaboration not merely as external collaboration between at least two authors, but as an internal risky enterprise involving the facets of one single creative mind.

Music is also at the heart of Jennifer Iverson’s case study of Louis and Bebe Barron’s electronic studio. The potential of modernist collaboration between this couple and their wider network of composers, patrons, friends, and technology was in principle unlimited; nevertheless, Iverson posits that it remained “unstable” throughout its existence because of economic and aesthetic restraints foisted upon the collaborators. The Barrons, pioneers of electronic sound and music, found themselves working for Hollywood as well as for John Cage, depending on where their streams of funding came from. This made their collaborative work “porous,” as Iverson argues. While their networks expanded, their musical modernism was rendered unstable; leading to such classics as for instance the score for Forbidden Planet of 1956.

None of the collaborations and networks explored in this cluster simply faltered. Rather, these collaborations sought to inhabit complex, and sometimes impossible, spaces of modernism in literature, the visual arts, and music; not all “(re)produc[ed] text” in the event, but all left traces of their collaborative thinking or networks (Ehnenn, Women’s Literary Collaboration, 5). In order to understand these collaborations, we have opted for an approach that could itself be described as porous (similar to how Iverson characterizes the networks of the Barron Studio). This porosity is tangible through the spaces we allow between case studies and theory, and those between different understandings of collaboration. We have intentionally cast our net wide and have sought to view the involved creative processes not only through the lens of collaboration theories, but also with the help of, for example, aspects of network theory—particularly, but not exclusively, in Maitra’s celebration of newspaper clipping agencies, McQuillen’s exploration of the Contemporary Art showrooms, and Iverson’s investigation of the Barron Studio soundscapes—or hauntology (in Paterson’s rethinking of George and W. B. Yeats’s ghostly sleeps).

As in most clusters on this platform, readers are invited to enter and exit the collection through any of the seven essays, as our strands of failure and weak ties flow through our case studies of collaborations and networks, sometimes in combination or in collision with each other. For those interested in particular figures and collaborations, the essays in this cluster offer thought and perspective on characters and partnerships that add to the repertoire of modernism’s well-known collaborations (for example Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot or the Vorticist project Blast). Cases in point are Hurston and Hughes, Bebe and Louis Barron, as well as George and W. B. Yeats, whose collaboration during the “sleeps” is approached from a new angle.[9] We have also sought to facilitate approaches to collaboration with new and different perspectives of gender, race, and nationality, as we explore the elusive shared will to creativity among couples, friends, groups, newspaper clippers, or fictitious characters; between California sleeper railway carriages and a design showroom in Saint Petersburg, via Harlem.

Even so, we barely scratch the surface of collaborations and networks that will continue to make overdue, shocking, risky, or ghostly appearances in modernist writing, music, and the visual arts. But we hope that the (both biographical and theoretical) impulses contained in this cluster will be able to provide testing grounds and tools for future insight into the collaborative natures of modernism.


[1] Jill R. Ehnenn, Women’s Literary Collaboration, Queerness, and Late-Victorian Culture (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008), 5.

[2] See Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds., Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership (London: Thames & Hudson, 1993); Howard Becker, Art Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); Michael P. Farrell, Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics & Creative Work (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Cynthia Jaffee McCabe, Artistic Collaboration in the Twentieth Century, with essays by Robert C. Hobbs and David Shapiro (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984). More recently, there has been a rise in publications on collaboration and distributed creativity in Music: e. g. Margaret S. Barrett, ed., Collaborative Creative Thought and Practice in Music (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014); Eric F. Clarke and Mark Doffman, eds., Distributed Creativity: Collaboration and Improvisation in Contemporary Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[3] Vera John-Steiner, Creative Collaboration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 3.

[4] Wayne Koestenbaum, Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration (New York: Routledge, 1989), 2.

[5] Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson, “Contexts and Heterotexts: A Theoretical and Historical Introduction,” in Literary Couplings: Writing Couples, Collaborators, and the Construction of Authorship, ed. Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 3–38, 3.

[6] Bette London, Writing Double: Women’s Literary Partnerships (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 27.

[7] See Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology 78, no. 6 (1973), 1360–80.

[8] See Michel Callon, “Actor-Network Theory—The Market Test,” The Sociological Review 47, no. 1 (1999), 181–95; Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor–Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[9] Compared to Bette London, Writing Double.