Joel Katelnikoff's Recombinant Theory
Reviewed by Aaron Schneider
This appears in our reviews section, but it is not a review, and, because of that, it requires an explanation. Joel Katelnikoff’s collection of essays Recombinant Theory is not yet available to readers, and there is, as of my writing this, no date set for its publication. It was one of several books whose release was canceled at the beginning of this year when the sale of Insomniac Press to a new owner fell through. So, this is not a review. It is, instead, a preview, a discussion of a book that deserves both publication and a readership, written in the hopes of contributing in a small way to stimulating interest in the text. I have based it on the advanced reading copy provided to me by Insomniac Press in the fall of 2020.
Recombinant Theory consists of 10 essays, each constructed out of/based on/responding to the work of another writer: Annharte, Charles Bernstein, Christian Bök, Johanna Drucker, Lyn Hejinian, Steve McCaffery, Erín Moure, Sawako Nakayasu, Lisa Robertson, and Fred Wah. Katelnikoff explains his compositional methodology in his acknowledgements: “In each essay, the title, the section headers, and the sentences in the first section are direct quotations from the writer’s textual corpus. All other sentences are spliced together from diverse materials found throughout the corpus.” The result is a fascinating book in which each essay is unique, marked indelibly by the style and preoccupations of the author out of whose work the essay is constructed, but which also consistently returns to a collection of linked themes, interrogating questions of originality, authority, authorship, etc. The result is a complex and rewarding book that is distinguished by its lyricism and craft.
One of the pleasures of reading Recombinant Theory is tracing a particular theme or issue as it wends its way through essays, disappearing in one or two, only to return in another, often transformed, in other terms and a new context. The first essay, “I don’t understand what I adore,” based on the work of Lisa Robertson, takes up the question of authority: