Sunday, June 21, 2009
Notes on Conceptualisms
by Vanessa Place & Robert Fitterman
There has already been a great deal written on the Internet about this slender blue book and its claim for novelty. Is it new? Is it different? Yes, Pound’s dictum “Make It New” remains pertinent, it remains true, all these years since its first utterance. But, at some point, wouldn’t it serve us to consider other foundational questions? Such as - Is it relevant? Which is, essentially, a question of moment. The point instead of the line. Perhaps too much time has been spent asking whether Vanessa Place & Robert Fitterman’s ‘Notes on Conceptualisms’ legitimately presents a new, that is a culminative, development in the ongoing history of innovative writing. In his introduction to this 76-page volume published earlier in 2009 by Ugly Duckling Presse, Fitterman acknowledges, “we are painfully aware that Conceptual Art was termed nearly half a century ago, and much of what we address might equally be called post-conceptual or neo-conceptual (to borrow terms from the visual arts).” Of course, this volume belongs within a tradition, one incorporating Mallarme and Barthes alongside Jackson Mac Low and LangPo. But there are also strong ties to the tradition of visuals arts, some of which have been traced in UDP’s recent reprint of Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer’s magazine, ‘0 to 9.’ So, in that regard, ‘Notes on Conceptualisms’ is a line.
But it is also a point. Conceptualism as a term, then, is fittingly modular, or variable, in that it can expand and contract in order to facilitate the appraisal and consideration of a particular work. Fitterman cautions that “…we use the term Conceptual Writing in the broadest sense, so that it intersects other terms such as: allegory, appropriation, piracy, flarf, identity theft, sampling, constraint and others.” Conceptual Writing is then taken out of strict boundaries of text, along with execution, and into that of context, as it “might be best defined not by the strategies used but by the expectations of the readership or thinkership.” We must modify our grasp of the points; at the very least we must place great emphasis upon our own reactions to the writing.
The collaborative essay of the same name comprising the majority of ‘Notes on Conceptualisms’ finds Place & Fitterman employing a Wittgensteinian sequence of points. These numbered sub-series are ostentatiously sequential, though such an ordering is actually ambiguous. For instance, there is no ‘3,’ but there is a ‘3a’ and ‘3b.’ Is ‘3’ an actual absence, then, or is it more an admission of absences? Think of John Cage, “…where silence is the song, and once absence is presence, presence is absent, and the present absence is simply another absent presence.” Are we misguided to deliberate upon it as site of contention, rather than an indication of methodology? Place & Fitterman write, “There are end-points to any spectrum, and infinite points between them. How one defines the end-points and the points between instructs how one defines conceptual writing.” Points are both locative and associative: a place, that is a point, can also ‘point’ in a particular direction.
Ron Silliman recently undertook a wonderful reading of ‘Notes on Conceptualisms,’ particularly in reference to mastery, over at his blog. But he makes a number of criticisms of lineage that I feel are telling misunderstandings. He lingers on the book’s newness in relation to a tradition. Silliman acknowledges the wonderful writing of the book’s second essay, Vanessa Place’s ‘Ventouses,’ but found that it “…doesn’t say anything about reference that language poets haven’t been saying for 30 years.” Perhaps. And perhaps that might even be the point – Place may be making a point about reference that has been previously made by the language poet, but she isn’t a language poet. And that says something else. Things can not simply be said, we must say them. Continuously. Maybe that is the point of literary Conceptualism’s appropriation of appropriation techniques from visual artists of the 60s onward. LangPo said it before, but Place hasn’t said it until now.
But perhaps there is a telling difference in the writings of poets such as Kenneth Goldsmith, Christian Bok, Jen Bervin and the work of Conceptual visual artists. Sol LeWitt, who also contributed to Acconci and Mayer’s ‘0 to 9,’ writes “If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results.” Place & Fitterman respond, “I have failed miserably – over and over again.” The foundational sentence in the essay is that “Conceptual Writing is allegorical writing.” But soon after the idea of failure is introduced. We are then asked to “Note the potential for excess in allegory. Note the premise of failure, of unutterability, of exhaustion before one’s begun. Allegorical writing is necessarily inconsistent, containing elaborations, recursions, sub-metaphors, fictive conceits, projections, and guisings that combine and recombine both to create the allegorical whole, and to discursively threaten this wholeness.” A manifesto, such as it can be argued ‘Notes on Conceptualisms’ is one, proposes a novelty of purpose and change, of a revitalized or reactive identity. But for all the boldness of this book, it does not succumb to naïve idealism. Failure isn’t something to dismiss, though perhaps a failure to acknowledge failure would be. “Failure is a goal of conceptual writing.”
Failure. Where is there failure within the word, or of the word? Place & Fitterman write “Words are objects.” And “Conceptual writing mediates between the written object (which may or may not be a text) and the meaning of the object by framing the writing as a figural object to be narrated.” This emphasis on the word as object partially echoes Bataille’s discussion of object and sanctity in ‘the Accursed Share,’ as we are here told to ‘Note that in allegorical practice, the commodity-object is revalued as an object via allegorical practice itself. There is restoration at work, and the promise of fetish.” While at the same time “The allegorical mind sides with the object and protests against its devaluation to the status of a commodity by devaluing it for the second time in allegorical practice.” And whereas the Language Poets offer a theoretical positioning informed by the Frankfurt school, Place & Fitterman at last make a viable case for post-Benjamin critical theory. They quote Benjamin Buloch’s Marxist/Benjaminian perspective: “…in a culture where objects are already devalued by their commodification, an allegorical relationship to the art object (or text) further highlights the process of devaluation.” Place & Fitterman now take this further, as “One might argue that devaluation is now a traditional/canonical aim of contemporary art. Thus there is now great value in devaluation.” Devaluation is itself capital.
Place & Fitterman concede to Slavoj Zizek’s remark that “The fundamental lesson of globalization is precisely that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilizations.” Therefore, “…capitalism has a knack for devouring and absorbing everything in its path – including any critique of capitalism. Furthermore, capitalism is naturally a meaningless system.” Institutional Critique, and particularly the work of artist Andrea Fraser, is used as an example thereof, as “Conceptual art, cannot destroy these institutions, but aims to unveil and underscore them through demystification.” So how is literary Conceptualisms, circa 2009, any different from some work by a visual artist, such as Fraser’s ‘Museum Highlights’ from 1989? The twenty-year divide is telling – again, we begin to consider these Conceptualisms as points, just as we have traditionally conceived of them as a line. We must underscore context, as “The poetry community has a vastly different relationship to its institutions, both historically and economically,” than the art world. Therefore, “…because institutions of poetry and progressive writing already wield so little cultural and economic capital, conceptual writing has been increasingly shifting its attention to mass media and the larger bodies of language management, e.g., websites, ads, blogs, etc.” We are then told that “This is another embrace of failure.” This perhaps helps us to understand certain problematics of the contemporary art world that have not made it to the literary community.
One must be engaged in the moment, in the situation. So, in a sense, “Pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense – one does not need to “read the work” as much as think about the ideas of the work.” There is a primacy on the act – this can be seen in postmodern poetics in which the reading is emphasized over the product itself in an attempt to dislocate capitalist commodification. But the reading has been further destabilized in conceptual writing. One can not only commodify an object, but also a service. Reading here gives way to mediation – as previously mentioned, to a thinkership over a readership. Then, we are told, “…these are strategies of failure… failure in this sense acts as an assassination of mastery…” This goes deeper than simple mastery of craft. Place & Fitterman aren’t taking aim at the Charles Simics, the Robert Frosts or the Richard Wilburs of the poetry world. No, they aren’t so dogmatic, nor are they so vindictive.
Instead, they quote from Hal Fosters essay, “Subversive Signs,” in which he write that the visual artist as appropriation artist is “… a manipulator of signs more than a producer of art objects, and the viewer an active reader of messages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or consumer of the spectacular.” Okay, Place & Fitterman take this further, they “Note that ‘more than’ and ‘rather than’ betray a belief in the segregation or possible segregation of these concepts; conceptualisms understands they are hinged. Note that in post-conceptual work, there is no distinction between manipulation and production, object and sign, contemplation and consumption.” Old binaries are removed.
In “Ventouses,” the second of the two essays included in “Notes on Conceptualisms,” Place asks us to look towards the possibilities beyond outmoded binaries, because “…once things are placed in opposition, they can’t help but come together, if only to fight.” Which is, of course, a very Kantian notion. But these essays do not so much support Kantian formulae, but “…the possibility of possibility.”
NEXT: After Yesterday's Crash, edited by Larry McCaffery