Conceptualisms: theoretical puzzlement

[I’ve been asked to write a statement on the relation of my work to “conceptual writing”… and would appreciate any feedback on these thoughts…]

Even after reading the little blue book, Notes on Conceptualisms, I admit that I am not entirely sure what conceptual writing is not. I am pretty sure I know what it is, but I don’t know where exactly to draw the line that distinguishes it from what it is not.

I get that it is allegorical, but it is not allegorical in the standard way that A Pilgrim’s Progress or Paradise Lost are allegorical: these are teaching texts that ask us to become better people by reading them and comprehending their correspondences and how those correspondences relate to our lives. The new conceptual writing is allegorical in that it points outside itself to other structures it aims to critique, as opposed to structures we should obey and follow and be improved by. That critique may serve to make us more “conscious,” but that consciousness doesn’t necessarily improve us or make us virtuous. The old allegory tries to make us obedient; the new allegory is subversive, and asks us to be disobedient. Maybe, given the contemporary social frame, disobedience is the new virtue?

There are also so many practices listed in the little blue book (hence, plural conceptualisms) – “appropriation, piracy, flarf, identity theft, sampling, constraint” – all of which I gleefully subscribe to – that the term could almost spread out to cover just about all the writing I do and that I pay attention to. Considered VERY broadly, all writing, even historically, is all of the things in the list above, with the exception of flarf (a narrower and more culturally specific term): we simply cannot use language without appropriating, pirating, stealing identity, sampling, or constraining. Can we?

Thus, in my state of theoretical puzzlement, I can only say: When I write conceptual poetry I don’t set out to write “conceptual poetry.” When I “appropriate,” I can compare it to wandering in a field and seeing, oh, lupine, and Queen Anne’s lace, and mariposa lilies, and wild irises, and because they are beautiful (and grotesque, like all flowers) they compel me and I take them and arrange them, even though it may not be legal to do so. Flowers are nature’s readymades. Or maybe “appropriation” is like wandering in my neighborhood in Brooklyn (admittedly looking for poetry) and seeing a giant sign over a Russian nightclub that reads “EUPHORIA.” The “conceptual” mindset, then, is about looking and noticing: as Place points out (writing of the image as reference), “like any good art, it teaches you to linger.” Not just, I think, to linger: to somehow penetrate what is noticed until it penetrates you. There’s a kind of interinanimating ecstasy (Donne) in this.

I do not privilege obviously appropriated writing over a more Romantic interiorly generated writing (although the latter, as I mention earlier, is in a sense also appropriated): in fact, the sort of writing that most intrigues me most is that which (I have written elsewhere) performs a kind of pavan between these two modes, because that is how I experience the world, as input and output gracefully and/or shockingly affecting each other. I want to lay bare this affect to myself and to anyone who takes the time to read what I write. I’m very much with Place when she writes, “If there is superior art, it lies in the ability of any image – real or abstract, written or pictorial – to dropkick, lick, tickle and torture, to render its reader absolutely sensate.” [italics mine] Thus, the “purely” appropriated writing I do is absolutely subject to my authorial manipulation and editing in the service of that sensation.

…………………………..

Coda: Wondering… given the definition (or lack of definition) above… is the following poem (which I wrote when I was eleven or twelve) “conceptual”?

3.95

a number
a poem in itself
a mathematical complicational digital3 figure.

or

Love – Beauty – Virtue – And other corny junk

or

Chinese Noodles and fried asparagus noses

or

BLEEP

but all it really is

is

3.95

15 thoughts on “Conceptualisms: theoretical puzzlement

  1. “Flowers are nature’s readymades” is quite possibly the most beautiful thing i have read in ages.

    I'm reminded of something said by Lisa Samuels, that (to paraphrase) conceptual writing is a misnomer, in that it is a truism. It is impossible to write aconceptually.

  2. I agree with Ross, but isn't that why 'conceptualism' is sort of like a bitchy french lover? It's probably very easy for 72 yr old philosophy professor to find a quote in Kant to the effect of a thought that cannot be expressed is not thinkable, but I think the conch-petual arts exploit this liminality and while [perhaps] weighting this or that entrainment, they play the 'bitchy french lover' just to make us a little grumpy or hot or jealous..

    If there were a purpose to life, or any permanent power other than in the potential of the loins, concpetual art might matter, but like everything cultural, including
    unfortunately poverty, war, etc, it is all rendered a kind of sick entertainment, or rather

    hintertaintmeant

    as in

    out here in the sticks of space
    there is a stain

    and nobody
    not really
    knew what it meant

    not exactly…

  3. Sorry Lanny, I should have been clearer. I, and Lisa, was/were not refuring to the redundancy of the genre, but simply the monkier that signifies it. No. 111 is, i think, and incredible piece of literature.

  4. Lanny, I always appreciate your sense of scale and your sense of the “speckishness” of everything we are and everything we do.

  5. I agree with Ross and Lanny. I've never thought of “conceptual” writing as any more conceptual than any other writing. I've always thought of it as an isolating of, and a highlighting of those aspects of all writing.

    I think what was initially so profound to me about “uncreative” writing was that it didn't seem to be trying to be “new”, but was saying “this is writing; this is what writing has always been”.

  6. The main thing I still don't get, and I didn't get it when it came up on Stan's blog either, is what this new concept of “allegorical” is. Your piece here describes it more directly than others, and I like the idea, but I'm still not sure why what's being discussed is called allegory and whether it should be. I suppose it doesn't matter all that much but it still throws me.

  7. flowers are nature's readymades? what in nature isn't? or couldn't be? buddha flower sermon, the mustard seed, allegory… opium, poison apple, the feather, the shell.

    and i just had a thought that can not be expressed. i'd tell you guys what it is if i could.

    wow. to think only in a frame context.

    i think one can write a/nonconceptually. but just not in a context of art swhich is what i guess you meant.

    ……

  8. I third fjb's second to Mark Wallace's confusion over 'allegory'.
    I had the feeling when reading 'Notes on Conceptualisms' that the term was used perhaps partly, or maybe precisely, *because* it would seem so out of place.

    I like how it is reminiscent of Situationism, détournement. Appropriating, reframing. What I love about (the idea of)'Day' is that it is the purest example of conceptual writing, a snapshot of a moment.

    My question is *what* is it allegorical of ? I think it (at least 'Day') is an allegory of the real. A schism, a fissure from language altered only to the extent that it was ‘poured’ into the mold of a book.

    (Although a danger in critiquing/exposing in such a direct way would be to become complicit / reproduce that which you are trying to pull rug out from under. Michael Silverblatt recently posed this same question to Clancy Martin, author of ‘How to Sell’ (title says it all), or think of Bret Easton Ellis. )

    The reason I think that Conceptual writing has some/many people confused (me at least) and riled up, is that – in its complete rejection of personal expression – it is so completely other to what everyone else is doing. However transient or long-lasting it will be, Conceptual writing is, I think, a true event in contemporary poetry because it has arisen out of what was there, but forced a rupture in our understanding of poetry.

  9. I third fjb's second to Mark Wallace's confusion over 'allegory'.
    I had the feeling when reading 'Notes on Conceptualisms' that the term was used perhaps partly, or maybe precisely, *because* it would seem so out of place.

    I like how it is reminiscent of Situationism, détournement. Appropriating, reframing. What I love about (the idea of)'Day' is that it is the purest example of conceptual writing, a snapshot of a moment.

    My question is *what* is it allegorical of ? I think it (at least 'Day') is an allegory of the real. A schism, a fissure from language altered only to the extent that it was ‘poured’ into the mold of a book.

    (Although a danger in critiquing/exposing in such a direct way would be to become complicit / reproduce that which you are trying to pull rug out from under. Michael Silverblatt recently posed this same question to Clancy Martin, author of ‘How to Sell’ (title says it all), or think of Bret Easton Ellis. )

    The reason I think that Conceptual writing has some/many people confused (me at least) and riled up, is that – in its complete rejection of personal expression – it is so completely other to what everyone else is doing. However transient or long-lasting it will be, Conceptual writing is, I think, a true event in contemporary poetry because it has arisen out of what was there, but forced a rupture in our understanding of poetry.

  10. One slight quibble with that though – I would not go so far as to say that conceptual writing is a “complete rejection of personal expression” – it only goes as far in that direction as Cage, Mac Low, et al, in taking expression/agency further away from the work – it is still manifest in the creation/conception/following of procedure. the expression is manifest in the (poetic/linguistic) act itself, be it lyric, aleatory, apropriative or otherwise.

  11. Of course, I agree too that personal expression is inevitable, even if only as a contingent circumstance. ‘Day’ contains innumerable mistakes that could never be edited out because it is simply unreadable. And in this way all of Goldsmith’s, or any (conceptual) writing always carries a trace of the personal.

    What I find interesting about Conceptual writing though, is precisely not that it is ‘appropriation in the service of expression, but appropriation, or excess, in the service of a concept.

    In this sense, I think pure conceptualism (appropriation) is more interesting than mixed conceptualism (excess), since the former more radically than even Language poetry, emphasizes the materiality of the book as object, and language. This emphasis on the book/language as object – through its unreadability (‘Day’), or by highlighting patterns immanent to language (‘Eunoia’) – allows, I think, for a new way of looking at poems, namely from an object-oriented perspective (in which the lyrical subject is placed on the same footing as objects (poem/book/language).

  12. Of course, I agree too that personal expression is inevitable, even if only as a contingent circumstance. ‘Day’ contains innumerable mistakes that could never be edited out because it is simply unreadable. And in this way all of Goldsmith’s, or any (conceptual) writing always carries a trace of the personal.

    What I find interesting about Conceptual writing though, is precisely not that it is ‘appropriation in the service of expression, but appropriation, or excess, in the service of a concept.

    In this sense, I think pure conceptualism (appropriation) is more interesting than mixed conceptualism (excess), since the former more radically than even Language poetry, emphasizes the materiality of the book as object, and language. This emphasis on the book/language as object – through its unreadability (‘Day’), or by highlighting patterns immanent to language (‘Eunoia’) – allows, I think, for a new way of looking at poems, namely from an object-oriented perspective (in which the lyrical subject is placed on the same footing as objects (poem/book/language).

  13. That's not what I meant though.
    I was saying that appropriation does not function in the service of expression, the *action* of producing the work is, in and of itself, and expressive act.

    And as far as book-as object, that doesn't require conceptual writing. The best critical work I've read on the subject has been in the Book of the Book, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Steven Clay (Granary), and in various pieces by Alan Loney.
    I have doubts about how 'unreadability' contributes to this, as it obscures one of the functions of the book-machine, but hesitate to be uniquivical about this (Deleuze and Guatarri: “a machine functions best when it is not working properly”).
    And I don't see how Eunoia contributes more then, say, Words nd Ends from Ez.

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