Saturday, July 27, 2013

doggerel for thematics; or the endgame of "détournement? I don't believe you!"

a brief reply to Kent Johnson's thoughtful Notes on Safe Conceptualisms, first delivered on April 26th, 2013, for the symposium “Lament of the Makers: Conceptualism and Poetic Freedom"––my response will not be revelatory for those familiar with the statements Johnson has chosen to (selectively) read.

-first, KJ juxtaposes the anti-subjectivity of North American ConPo with earlier, more legible praxes (in Russia) of “cultural and political critique,” then faults Perloff and Dworkin for their “registers of such ‘we came first’ claims on Unoriginality.” So there is a break, apparently, but ConPo practitioners/readers should not mention it… Meanwhile (in the same introduction to Against Expression that Johnson cites, I presume) Dworkin makes several nods to earlier poetic “modes of [lyrical] noninterference”: Charles Olson, John Cage, not to mention the impersonal reframing techniques of Conceptual artists like Elaine Sturtevant. “[W]e hope not only to sketch certain legacies but also to demonstrate that particular techniques and devices––such as appropriation or transcription, however novel they might seem––always have precedents.” Such tactics, Dworkin adds, are not of themselves significant, "but they do always signify; their meaning simply changes with the cultural moment in which they are deployed (context, again, is all to the point). […] in the end, the figure of the uncreative writer is hardly new. Jorge Luis Borges’s Pierre Menard, for instance” (“The Fate of Echo,” Against Expression). So much for Johnson's suggestion of a haughty "we came first" ethos.

-then, he insists that Goldsmith’s Benjaminian analogy “that the computer is now to writing what photography was to painting” is unsound because, per Johnson, ConPo “advocates a poetics that decidedly embraces the representational, recycling dynamics of the camera/Internet, analogously mimicking its protocols, forms, and effects.” That representational is a slippery signifier. While various impersonal reframing techniques are used by poets within/without the affiliations of ConPo, the “representational” and “allegorical” mode of Conceptualism––at least as theorized by Place and Fitterman, while Dworkin suggests elsewhere there is no "C"onceptualism, only conceptualisms––foregrounds a necessary dialectical failure inherent in modes of representation/embodiment––“Note: embodiment = failure.” Conceptual writing seeks to demystify representation through semiotic glut and tautological banality: “Note the potential for excess in allegory. Note the premise of failure, of unutterability, of exhaustion before one’s begun” (Notes on Conceptualisms, emphasis added). Representation as trope, language as simulacra––Robert Smithson, via Dworkin: “LANGUAGE to be LOOKED at and/or THINGS to be READ.”

-on the other hand, I think Johnson and others do well to consider the obvious questions (posed much earlier by Bob Perelman and others) about Lang- & ConPo practitioners' embrace (gestural, degenerative, complicit, or otherwise––reformative?) of academic and cultural institutions: "What are the longer-term ramifications of the Academic climate for so-called 'oppositional' poetry? What about the discourses (teaching, theorizing, historicizing) that compose its practices, as well as their reception (their criticism, archiving, ranking, distribution, that is, on their reinscription). To what extent might we begin to see the Academy, in other words, as a normalizing, disciplining habitus of avant poetry’s historically agonistic dispositions, and with what long-view consequences for its dissident articulations?" At least he is considerate in his approach to academia––"Thank goodness for scholars, because things are more complicated than ever, and we need them urgently"––and after all, please list for me, if you can, those radical cultural and sociological theories and institutional critiques brought into existence without specialized learning and/or the time and funds afforded by an academic research position... That said, I think even Goldsmith or Place would agree that some of the most interesting poetic achievements have existed both within and without academic patronage. (For all the self-righteous ire directed at Charles Bernstein's Penn professorship, few realize/admit that he never went for a graduate degree).

-as for decrying "programmatic statements" in the posturings of Place and Goldsmith (because let's only consider the usual suspects when assessing a movement), with their supposed replication of "cultural effluvia," it's worth pointing out that in the recent wave of defensively totalizing affirmations of Poetry-as-such––which Bernstein argues, "is not, for me, an honorific category"––very few poets today seem willing to ponder, much less challenge, the tacit notion that poetry suffices as a mode of critique without reflexive awareness. If Conceptualism à la Place seems less than concerned with the delimiting walls of MOMA or the Academy, it is perhaps due to a distractingly serious investigation of Poetry (itself an institution) which seems often to put off examining its own ideological predispositions. Place's enactments of complicity are not only gestural, but interrogative: "One learns not to avoid the trap, but to walk into the trap and see if it can be trapped" (interview). How can a poetry that remains self-unaware, blinded by its own delusions and ignoring its own pretensions to creativity and originality, function as a viable critique of cultural-political valorization and subject-interpellation? It is this implicit, unquestioned "nature" of poetry that comes to the fore in the act of reframing: "Poetry is that which occurs within the institution of poetry. That is to say, form is not inherently important, words are not necessarily significant, language is utterly irrelevant, 'I's can be put out with impunity, there can be nothing but thick-skinned idiotic literality, and [yet] it is still poetry because it exists as poetry" (Place "A Poetics of Radical Evil," Lana Turner no. 3).
-finally, while Johnson's piece was intended for a symposium and therefore can get away with being overly general, is it too much to ask for critiques of Conceptual writing-as-such to start discussing actual examples of conceptual or post-conceptual writing rather than vague assertions about mere "programmatic statements"?


Allegorical writing (particularly in the form of appropriated conceptual writing) does not aim to critique the culture industry from afar, but to mirror it directly. To do so, it uses the materials of the culture industry directly. This is akin to how readymade artworks critique high culture and obliterate the museum-made boundary between Art and Life. The critique is in the reframing. The critique of the critique is in the echoing.

Note the desire to begin again.


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