srijeda, 19. lipnja 2013.

Konceptualizam u književnosti: Kenneth Goldsmith, Craig Dworkin, Vanessa Place, Rob Fitterman, Sophie Calle...

Konceptualizam u književnosti razmjerno je nova, velika stvar.
Važna je ideja, ne i samo čitanje. Autor te njegova originalnost i ekspresivnost potpuno se odbacuju, važni su tuđi nađeni materijali, prisvajanje, plagiranje, podvale, falsifikati, krađe, prerade postojećih i nasumično stvarnje novih tekstova,  dosada, bezvijednost i značenjska besmislenost teksta, nečitljivost, mehaničko ponavljanje, nekreativno pisanje, jezik kao nešto što se odbacuje i reciklira, jezik kao otpad...
Ove je tekstove gotovo nemoguće čitati u uobičajenom smislu tog pojma. Tradicionalno su "nečitljivi" tekstovi bili takvi zbog poremećene sintakse i lomljenja teksta, no nečitljivost u 21. stoljeću više je vezana za gustoću i fizičku obimnost. Najsvježiji primjer takve obimnosti odnosi se na plan Kennetha Goldsmitha da isprinta cijeli internet.
Moji prethodni postovi srodni ovim temama: Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing + Rob Fitterman  + Sophie Calle + Vanessa Place.

: Summer Semester Reading List: Conceptual Literature

Introductory Materials
Stanford Encyclopedia Entry for Conceptual Art
Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Journal, Day One”
Sol Lewitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art”
Sol Lewitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”
Lucy R. Lippard & John Chandler’s “The Dematerialization of Art”
Vanessa Place & Robert Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms
The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)
by Andy Warhol
+  Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns (2006) (Part One & Part Two)
Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings by Yoko Ono
by Yoko Ono
+ Yoko Ono’s “25 Things Even My Best Friends Didn’t Know Until Now…”
+ John Lennon & Yoko Ono Two Virgins
The Address Book
by Sophie Calle

+ Sophie Calle’s 20 minute talk “Art, Biography and History” (2004) (Part One & Part Two)
+ Sophie Calle’s interview with Loiuse Neri for Interview Magazine
+ Sophie Calle’s interview with Sheila Heti for The Believer
Seven American Deaths and Disasters
by Kenneth Goldsmith

+ My interview with Goldsmith at Paris Review
+ Andrew Epstein’s ”Found Poetry, “Uncreative Writing,” and the Art of Appropriation” (from The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature)
Kept Women
by Kate Durbin

+ Kate Durbin’s blog
+ Kate Durbin’s Tumblr “Women As Objects
+ Kate Durbin’s YouTube channel


UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing 
Introduced and edited by Craig Douglas Dworkin

Poetry expresses the emotional truth of the self. A craft honed by especially sensitive individuals, it puts metaphor and image in the service of song.

Or at least that's the story we've inherited from Romanticism, handed down for over 200 years in a caricatured and mummified ethos - and as if it still made sense after two centuries of radical social change. It's a story we all know so well that the terms of its once avant-garde formulation by William Wordsworth are still familiar, even if its original manifesto tone has been lost: "I have said," he famously reiterated, "that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."
But what would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with "spontaneous overflow" supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet's ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself? So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.
The works presented here provide one set of answers to those questions. Moreover, from the modernist experiments of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett to the neodadaism of Fluxus, they hint at the range of alternatives and challenges that have been presented to the Romantic lineage of expressive poetry. This collection intends to both recall those traditions and complicate their multiple and intersecting histories. In the social context of its publication, for instance, Alan Davies' a an av es is part of the published record of Language Poetry. At the same time, its mode of composition also gestures towards L'Ouvoir de littérature potentielle [The Workshop for Potential Literature], or OuLiPo for short. The work is a multiple lipogram known as the "prisoner's constraint," in which only letters without ascenders or descenders are permitted - perhaps to be able to write in closely spaced lines and conserve the prisoner's ration of paper, or, more fancifully, to be free of the bars even of letters. Similar crossings occur in Tomoko Minami's 38, which references both the constraint based collages of Walter Abish, in works such as Alphabetical Africa and (especially) 99: The New Meaning, as well as the syllabic rearticulations of Kenneth Goldsmith's No. 111. At the same time, the writerly pleasures of 38 are made legible by the radical abstractions of sound poetry and the reduced referentiality of the twentieth century's most extreme avant-garde writing. Likewise, Christian Bök's String Variables combines the permissions granted by post-Language Poetry lyricism with the constraints of the OuLiPo. It takes the form of a "charade," in which alphabetic characters are respaced but not reordered, effecting what the Russian Futurists called sdvig: the shift of verbal mass within a text.
One should not forget the OuLiPo's origins in the College de 'Pataphysique, and that lettristic shift in String Variables might equally be seen as the swerve of Alfred Jarry's clinamen: the chance swerve of one element of a system that results in a reengineering of the whole. That swerve, in short, bends the rules of the game but continues to play. Indeed, many of these works embody the misapplied rigor and alternative logics of Jarry's 'pataphysics: "the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments." Jarry's science investigates "the probabilities and necessities of a certain situation," to borrow from Aristotle's definition of poetry, and it accordingly studies particulars, singularities, and exceptions with an absurd necessity, projecting those moments through their logical extremes. 'Pataphysics combines incompatible systems as though they were natural extensions of one another; or it establishes structures and allows them to exhaust their own possibilities; or it puts pressure on closed systems until the logic of a particular form devours itself in an oroborian autophagy. In other words, 'pataphysics is the mental version of Yves Klein's sauté dane le vide [leap into the void], or Bas Jan Ader's second Fall (executed exactly a decade later, in 1970): the clinanematic swerve of his Jarryesque bicycle into the brack of an Amsterdam canal.
Like Ader, the majority of the writers here were participants in the set of contemporaneous practices that came to be known as "Conceptual Art." I want to stress, however, that this anthology is not meant to be a collection of writings by conceptual artists but a collection of distinctly conceptual writing. There are many works of conceptual music, for instance, but John Cage's Cheap Imitation - like the third movement of Todd Levin's Between My Mouth And Your Ear, which was derived by erasing the accidentals in one of Iannis Xenakis' scores - is an essentially written work (and not just because it has been scored). Accordingly, one might expand the sense of "writing" here to include a works like Ceal Floyer's Ink on Paper (2002) - a felt pen placed in the center of a piece of paper and allowed to bleed out - or Dávid Nez' 1970 piece "documenting vibrations of travel" during a trip: a felt pen placed in the center of a piece of paper and allowed to vibrate naturally across the surface in a seismographic waver and fit.
Such works manifest some of the tensions in this collection between materiality and concept. These works negotiate between the modernist emphasis on the material of art (in many cases here that means the materiality of language itself) and a post-modernist understanding of a theoretically based art that is independent of genre, so that a particular poem might have more in common with a particular musical score, or film, or sculpture than with another lyric. Similarly, these works remind us that the "dematerialization" of the art object in the late 1960s and early 70s was accompanied by a rematerialization of language: "language as a material entity, as something that wasn't involved in ideational values," as "printed matter - information which has a kind of physical presence," as Robert Smithson put it. "My sense of language," Smithson summed up, "is that it is matter and not ideas - i.e. 'printed matter'." In sum: A Heap of Language. Accordingly, the conceptual writing collected here is not so much writing in which the idea is more important than anything else as a writing in which the idea cannot be separated from the writing itself: in which the instance of writing is inextricably intertwined with the idea of Writing: the material practice of écriture.
Conceptualizing writing in that way returns us, perhaps surprisingly, to a poetry of form. But not to a form - to the received forms of sonnets and quatrains and the like, with their familiar schemes of stress and rhyme. Instead, the new forms and structures of conceptual writing recall the sense of artifice, constraint, and perversity that the sonnet too must once have embodied. Conceptual writing is the writing of the new new formalism, and far from being a relic of the period Lucy Lippard documented in her invaluable Six Years (1966 to 1972), it has characterized some of the most rigorous and exciting work from twenty-first century writers such as Dan Farrell and Mónica de la Torre.
For all of the ground suggested by this expanded field, the expected disclaimer: far from complete or archival, this collection is meant as a small preview gallery or first sampler of conceptual writing. From here, interested readers might move out in a number of directions: to Robert Morris' 1962 sculpture Card File [collection Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris]; to Frank Kuenstler's extraordinary book In Which; to György Ligeti's poème symphonique (for 100 metronomes); to Michael Snow's video Fridge; to the perl-scripted Apostrophe Engine of Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry; to well beyond.
In the end, this collection is an attempt to remember the end of Wordsworth's sentence: poetry is that form which "does itself actually exist in the mind."
Or, to put this all another way: This is an essay about Robert Rauschenberg if I say so.

  1. Craig Dworkin & Kenneth Goldsmith: Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing
    Introductory Essays & Table of Contents (2011)

    [PDF, 262k]
  2. Crux Desperationis 1 (2011): A Journal of Conceptual Writing (Ed. Riccardo Boglione, Montevideo) [PDF, 1.3mb]
  3. Crux Desperationis 2 (2012): A Journal of Conceptual Writing: An Index of Potencial Works (Ed. Riccardo Boglione, Montevideo) [PDF, 1 mb]
  4. Crux Desperationis 3, December 2012, Ed. Riccardo Boglione, Montevideo) [PDF, 3.6 mb]
  5. Vito Acconci: 4 works: "RE"; ["READ THIS WORD"]; "Points for Motion"; "Installment/Installation: Move/Remove"
  6. Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin: "22 Sentences: The French Army"
  7. John Baldessari: "I will not make any more boring art"
  8. Robert Barry: 2 works: "Art Work"; ["This work has been and continues to be..."]
  9. Samuel Beckett: from Watt
  10. Christian Bök: 3 works: 10 Maps of Sardonic Wit; String Variables; Vowels
  11. George Brecht: 3 works: Word Event; 3 Aqueous Events; Chair Event
  12. Victor Burgin: Any Moment
  13. Donald Burgy: Checkup
  14. John Cage: Cheap Imitation; Tacet
  15. Claude Closky: The first thousand numbers classified in alphabetical order
  16. Hanne Darboven: ["eins zwei..."]
  17. Alan Davies: "A AN AV ES"
  18. Howard Fried" "The Cheshire Cat", Part 1
  19. Dan Graham: 2 works: Schema. [miles to...]
  20. Michael Harvey: card from White Papers
  21. Douglas Huebler: [vertical line] ; Variable Piece 4 New York City: Secrets (1969) [PDF]
  22. Joseph Kosuth: "Five Words in Red Neon"
  23. Bruce McLean: "King for a Day and 999 other pieces/ works/ things/ etc."
  24. Richard Meltzer: 3 works: Barbara Mauritz: Music Box; Denny Lile; Maple Leaf Cowpoop Round-Up
  25. Tomoko Minami: 38
  26. Robert Morris: "A Method For Sorting Cows"
  27. Taddea Oscuro: [untitled proposal]
  28. Paul Pechter: "Proposal for Device entitled Discriminations"
  29. Adrian Piper: 2 works: [Untitled 1968 work]; "Here and Now"
  30. Racter
  31. Robert Rauschenberg: "Portrait of Iris Clert"
  32. Richard Serra: [Verb List]
  33. Robert Smithson: A Heap of Langauge
  34. Gertrude Stein: from Five Words in a Line
  35. Lawrence Weiner: Tracce / Traces

Even when those texts look indistinguishable from the work that is included

An interview with Craig Dworkin

Craig Dworkin at the In(ter)ventions gathering at Banff in February 2010. Photo by Andi Olsen.

Craig Dworkin is a poet, critic, editor, and professor at the University of Utah. He is the author of five books of poetry, including Motes (2011), The Perverse Library (2010), Parse (2008), Strand (2004), and Dure (2004). He has edited five volumes, including Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2011) with Kenneth Goldsmith, The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound (2009) with Marjorie Perloff, and The Consequence of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics (2008); he is also the author of a critical study, Reading the Illegible (2003), and has published articles in such diverse journals as October, Grey Room, Contemporary Literature, and College English. He runs Eclipse, an online archive of radical small-press writing from the last quarter century.  This interview was conducted over email throughout the summer and fall of 2011.

Katie L. Price: The recently published anthology that you edited with Kenneth Goldsmith, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, was a sort of expansion of the UbuWeb “Anthology of Conceptual Writing” correct? What prompted the original online anthology and when and why did you decide to expand the project into a book?

Craig Dworkin: The online anthology (which — let’s be honest — is really more like an illustrated essay than a true anthology, despite the grandiose title) came from working in different disciplines. I was teaching in an English department, DJ-ing an avant-garde music show on the radio, and writing art history articles …. and I realized that these subcultures didn’t speak much to one another.  So someone interested in a particular musical composition, say, had probably never heard of the literary work that was fundamentally — conceptually — very much like it. Indeed, I came to realize that a poem might well have more in common with a piece of music than with any other poem. So in part I wanted the UbuWeb site to make a case for reading across disciplines.

At the same time, through my research I was discovering lots of interesting text-works from the ’60s, the moment of Conceptual Art (this was before the several, big, really useful anthologies and studies of the topic had come out), and I felt like there was a particular case to be made for a practice that was undeniably “writing,” but without the communicative, exophoric, expressive goals generally associated with writing.

Now the print anthology, Against Expression, picks up on the idea of writing that is not expressive in the conventional sense; it collects texts that are not the result of unique, coherent, expressive subjects putting things “in their own words.” But it’s actually making a case that is exactly the opposite of the online anthology. Instead of being interdisciplinary, it argues for the importance of local social contexts, and it focuses on works that were published as literature.  So it doesn’t include “outsider” writing, for instance (the symptomatic writing of the mentally ill); nor obsessive vernacular practices; or texts that were produced for a gallery audience rather than a book-reading audience, and so forth. Even when those texts look indistinguishable from the work that is included.

Price: You’ve said that the arguments behind the illustrated essay, to use your term, and the print anthology are opposite. I’m wondering if this decision reflects not only your evolving research interests, but also a change in fields. For example, would you say that more scholars, writers and artists are reading across disciplines now and this makes the argument of the illustrated essay less immediately pertinent? Or that the anthology is partially a response to how conceptual writing has been recently received? In other words, how might you situate the two projects themselves historically and socially, especially when, as you say, the texts in them might appear indistinguishable?

Dworkin: I don’t think there’s been any sudden sea-change. Disciplines have a strong gravitational pull. Though at a very small scale — on the level of specific individuals — I can certainly think of people in the art world who are now looking more to literature, and vice versa.  Michalis Pichler, in Germany, for instance, or the Information As Material collective in England, or the kind of scene that has been developing in Los Angeles, say. Andrea Andersson is curating a museum show of conceptual texts at the intersection of the gallery and the page. And it’s not coincidental that the US launch of the anthology was at MoMA, and the UK launch will be at the Whitechapel Gallery.

However, a couple of longer-term historical shifts are legible in the discourse around poetics.  The first has to do with appropriation. In the 1970s, poets were constructing poems from entirely appropriated material: Charles Bernstein’s “Asylum”; Lyn Hejinian’s Gesualdo and Writing Is an Aid to Memory; most of Clark Coolidge’s Ing, and so on. But appropriation and procedure are rarely mentioned back then. The poets themselves either don’t say anything at all, or they don’t make a big deal about it if asked. Reviews and critical articles might say that a work “sounds like” it is citational, or that it’s “tempting to speculate” on their sources, but that’s it.  Whereas today, the fact of appropriating a source is the first thing a poet will say about their work; it’s how poems are introduced at readings and how books are advertised. Back in the 1990s, Lyn Hejinian was reluctant to admit that were any sources at all in Writing Is an Aid to Memory, but she now recounts the procedure as a matter-of-course. [1] So something fundamental has shifted over that last decade or so.

The other big change has to do with the rhetoric around readability. “Opacity” and “illegibility” were key terms in the language of value for avant-garde poetry in the ’70s and ’80s, when the recalcitrance of a text was aligned with other forms of political resistance. The most exciting poetry was often agrammatical or asemantic, and appropriated fragments were collaged in ways that heightened disjunction.  Today, that’s no longer the case.  It’s not that the poetry today is any easier, or more complacent or complicit, but the areas of interest and attention have shifted.  And this is always one of the difficulties for readers when poetics shift: we too often expect the work that follows an earlier avant-garde to continue to look like that older mode, when in fact influence and imitation are very different things.

Price: I had never really thought about poetry introductions being such vital pieces of the puzzle of literary history, but it makes perfect sense, so thank you for that. But I’d like to ask you two questions.

You characterize avant-garde poetry of the ’70s and ’80s as agrammatical, asemantic, and disjunctive. This seems to be the standard and accepted reading of the avant-garde of that time. For example, I’m reminded of Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation, in which she repeats the phrase “fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax and so on” almost to the point of absurdity. I wonder if you had to characterize the values or characteristics of the 1990s and 2000s what you might say? In your mind, are the key terms mostly the same but just used or understood differently? Or are the characteristics of more contemporary poetry different entirely?

Which leads to my second question: How do you see your own work, both with the anthology and works such as The Perverse Library or Parse, addressing these questions?

Dworkin: Well, this is all from a very distant, generalizing perspective; I should be quick to note that there is certainly astonishingly good work being published today that doesn't fit either description (Joseph Massey, for just one example, is one of my favorite poets). And Peter Inman, for a very different example, is publishing exciting, masterful new books that make good on the rhetoric of the ’70s avant-garde in ways that the actual poems from the period seldom did: “agrammatical, asemantic, and disjointed” in the extreme.  But in general, from a certain remove, I do think we’ve seen the basic characteristics change.

Which is precisely why I wanted to publish the anthology. The number of texts manifesting those new characteristics had reached a critical mass. When Kenny and I first started talking about the anthology, we had a handful of examples in mind and figured we’d find a few more; by the time it was in production at Northwestern, new books of what we would consider “conceptual” writing were being published weekly, any of which could have been centerpieces in the anthology.

As a scholar, I’m interested in moments like that, when the literary landscape changes dramatically, and I wanted to document that moment in the first years of the twenty-first century when modes of “conceptual writing” were newly relevant to such a rapidly growing number of writers. As the anthology is at pains to demonstrate, these modes were not unprecedented, but they were operating with a newly visible significance for many writers. None of which, I should add, makes Conceptual writing somehow “better” than what came before — I don’t subscribe to a progress model of literary history — and none of which suggests that people ought to write in this way (I’m always surprised by the panicked fear Conceptual writing can elicit from other poets, as if they’re going to have to abandon their writing and be forced to transcribe newspapers for the rest of their careers …).

As to my own poetry, Parse is actually a good example of how the coalescing of similar writing in the 2000s changes the light in which we see such works.  At the time I started the book, in the mid-1990s, there was no such thing as “conceptual writing.” I was primarily interested in postwar art (something like Mel Ramsden’s series of “100% Abstract” paintings were a direct inspiration, but also Robert Smithson, John Cage, minimalism, et cetera), renegade surrealism (Bataille and the Documents group; René Daumal and Le Grand Jeu group; late Dada works; et cetera), and a scattershot of other modernisms: OuLiPo; Russian Futurism; Gertrude Stein; Mina Loy … And although I was reading a lot of poetry in the Language tradition, the relation of that poetry to Parse was indirect; it granted the necessary permission to write abstract, non-communicative works, but nothing they were doing looked anything like a parsed grammar book. Similarly, I was profoundly inspired by Darren Wershler and Christian Bök, who were important friends and role models for me, but works like The Tapeworm Foundry and Eunoia were still years off.  I knew about No. 111 from teaching art history, but I wouldn’t meet Kenny and find out about Soliloquy and his new writing projects until 1998.  A dozen years later, against the background of the anthology and all those other books, Parse suddenly makes much more sense, and it seems to take part in a conversation that it wasn’t really able to have back in the ’90s.

Price: As you say, the conversation has changed surrounding books that use what we might call “conceptual practices,” although exactly what that means, I think, is still up for debate. I’ve noticed this change even in just the last four years — four years ago I often found myself having to justify my interest in “conceptual writing,” and even, at times, its precedents. Now it seems, even if “conceptual writing” still elicits anxiety, tension, or downright anger from both poets and critics, the mere proliferation of these techniques has rendered a conversation about these texts, and conceptual practices or techniques, necessary.

Would you mind talking a bit more about how the writing of your colleagues influences the projects you undertake and how you understand your own work? You mentioned that Kenneth Goldsmith and Darren Wershler were particularly influential. What types of conversations do you have with each other? And do these directly influence the projects you undertake and the way in which you undertake them?

Dworkin: I can certainly name a few of the ways that conversations with Christian Bök and Darren Wershler initially — and then for many years with Kenny Goldsmith — and then more recently with Brian Kim Stefans and Rob Fitterman as well, have had a direct influence on my writing projects. Most importantly, they’ve always provided the right combination of permission and provocation: contemporary models of going all the way (I always think of Blaise Cendrars’s line from La Prose du Transsibérien: j’étais fort mauvais poète. Je ne savais pas aller jusqu’au bout”) and then the challenge to go even farther. Plus, we’re good enough friends to give bluntly honest assessments, and to trust each other’s judgments in turn: we’ve all had books we thought were completed and polished and ready for press …. until one of the others challenged us to push the project to another level.  I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say, for instance, that Christian completely reconceived and rewrote Eunoia, ratcheting up the content to match the formal bravura of a first version, after sharing it with a few of us. In the end, these are the readers I’m writing for. And because the projects are in dialogue with one another, those projects in many ways are the conversation.

Now, I’m not sure any of that is any different from what all writers experience; but as you might expect, the nature of those conversations is not at the level of local craft concerns — tweaking particular lines of discrete poems, say — but rather at the broad level of testing and proving the conceptual parameters. The most practical questions tend to be about paratexts (how much explanatory apparatus should accompany a work?), or the fit of form to content — but mainly it is a conversation, at all levels, about how to realize the full force and rigor and elegance an unexpected intellectual investigation might achieve.

Price: The last thing you said reminds me of a line from your introductory essay to the UbuWeb “Anthology of Conceptual Writing,” that the test of this poetry is “no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.” I’m interested in this notion that if a work is “done otherwise,” it is actually a completely different work and how this relates to the scientific vocabulary you used in describing your interactions with certain colleagues: “testing and proving,” “explanatory apparatus,” “intellectual investigation.” The model here seems to be that of a laboratory of literature: writers and thinkers working side by side to discover the unexpected. At least that’s one of the things I find most interesting about conceptual literature, and particularly your work.
Would you mind talking a bit about how you and your colleague’s work relates to science — and perhaps even if this characteristic of “intellectual investigation” at all influenced the decisions to include or exclude certain works in Against Expression?
Dworkin: Marjorie Perloff has said “I don’t especially care for the word ‘experimental,’ which implies that the poetry in question is just an experiment, that it may well fail,” [2] but I like the word for precisely that reason: the suggestion that poetry can tell us something we didn’t know before — not because it communicates some wisdom or knowledge or insight from the author, but because its structures — the process of its composition and the specifics of its final form — reveal something in and of themselves.  This is also where the idea of the experimental links up to the conceptual: neither is primarily about expressing or communicating. Rather, they are primarily about framing and asking and recording.

There is also a sense in which the experimental frees the audience as well, since the poem, in some sense, is written not so that it caters to the reader, but so that it serves Poetry — an experimental poem is written for language.  What happens if you alphabetize five-syllable phrases ending in an “r”sound?  What happens if you restrict yourself to only one vowel?  What patterns emerge from a parsed text? How many chemicals make up a printed page? We learn more, with such works, about language itself than we do about their authors.

But to answer your question more directly: the closest relation to science would surely be found in Christian Bök’s Xenotext Experiment.  There, Christian has taught himself an extraordinary amount of genetics and biochemistry, is working directly in the lab with credentialed scientists, and has published the work in science journals more than in poetry journals. And in that work you can catch a glimpse of the crossroads Conceptual Writing is going to come to: whether to turn its back on conventional poetry (Christian is speaking more to non-poets with that project than to other writers) or to challenge the comfortable status quo directly (as Vanessa Place is doing).

Re-thinking "Non-retinal Literature":
Citation, "Radical Mimesis," and Phenomenologies of Reading in Conceptual Writing1
AbstractThis article discusses the self-characterizations of the contemporary North American school of Conceptual writing, arguing that certain exponents of Conceptualism disavow a relation to Language writing, claiming an alternate predecessor in Conceptual art. The article in turn posits that the appropriative technique of "reframing" used by Conceptualists has been under-theorized, given its importance as a compositional strategy of unreadability, and in turn approaches the Conceptual textual readymade as "strategic medium translation" (one form of "medium envy"). Tracing other modes of radical mimesis in Conceptualism that shadow economic phenomena, the article analyzes works by Robert Fitterman as exemplary of radical mimesis critical of digital capitalism.
"Unreadability"—that which requires new readers, and teaches new readings. —Bruce Andrews, Text & Context

Declaring the Unreadable

It's no secret that Conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith styles himself a provocateur. (The introduction from his recent critical book Uncreative Writing, featured in the "Review" section of The Chronicle of Higher Education in September 2011, for instance, states that in his classroom students "are rewarded for plagiarism" and that "the role of the professor now is part party host, part traffic cop, full-time enabler."2) In the maze of self-quoting brief essays, introductions, and interviews on Conceptual poetry published prior to this book, which also includes self-citation, Goldsmith continually re-mounts the argument that versions of "uncreativity" based on strategies of textual appropriation are warranted because the old versions of creativity are beyond worn out: "When our notions of what is considered creative became this hackneyed, this scripted, this sentimental, this debased, this romanticized . . . this uncreative, it's time to run in the opposite direction. Do we really need another 'creative' poem about the way the sunlight is hitting your writing table? No."3 Of course, Goldsmith may be ventriloquizing the point of fellow Conceptualist Craig Dworkin, who had introduced his UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing by stating: "Poetry expresses the emotional truth of the self. A craft honed by especially sensitive individuals, it puts metaphor and image in the service of song. Or at least that's the story we've inherited from Romanticism, handed down for over 200 years in a caricatured and mummified ethos—and as if it still made sense after two centuries of radical social change."4 Though such remarks might seem directed at an ossified literary establishment, another target proposes itself: Language writing. For Language writers not only challenged a culturally dominant confessional poetry, but also did so precisely by issuing statements of which the Conceptualists' are carbon copies. The movement is here omitted from the (counter-) record by the very means of its own provocation.5
"Conceptual writing" at first referred to works by a self-identified, core group of writers who amalgamated their school c.1999 and participated for years in a listserv devoted to the topic. Yet it has also always been understood as a characteristic set of methods for making literary texts largely by manipulating found materials in ways involving procedure, constraint, or more "simple" annexations. While these methods tend to attenuate or substantially mediate subjective authorial expression, their main purpose lies in a revelatory hyperbole or deconstruction of content through arbitrary though telling operations.6 Probably the two best-known works of Conceptual writing are Goldsmith's Day (2003), a re-inscription in book form of the entirety of The New York Times of September 1, 2000, with the non-linear format of the work incorporating eruptions of ad copy into news stories and massive entries of stock quotes, and Christian Bök's Eunoia (2001), a collection of univocalic prose poems, in which each chapter is based on a different vowel and employs 98% of the univocalic words for that vowel in Webster's Third International Dictionary, while obeying further constraints such as grammatical parallelism.7 Conceptual writing has been institutionally ensconced with unusual enthusiasm in the domain of both poetry and visual art. In 2005, the Canadian poetics journal Open Letter published a full issue entitled "Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics." In 2008, the conference "Conceptual Poetry and Its Others" was held at the Poetry Center of the University of Arizona. In the last few years, panels on and readings of Conceptual writing have been featured at MOMA and the Whitney Museum in New York, as well as at an art festival in Berlin. Goldsmith read in the White House event "A Celebration of American Poetry" in May 2011. Two anthologies, together containing work by over 150 authors, have recently appeared: Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, edited by Goldsmith and Dworkin, and "I'll Drown My Book": Conceptual Writing by Women, edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Vanessa Place.8
Conceptualists have been materially and socially supported by the institutions and community of Language poetry; they also share Language writing's focus on media capitalism and the political economy and institutional and discursive organization of culture, poetry in particular. Yet Conceptualism parts ways, or so it represents itself, from its disavowed predecessor in regard to key tactics, concepts, and concerns. Perhaps the most important commonality among Language poetries' strategies and self-understandings was the cultivation of de-reifying, participatory forms of readership through the agency of disjunction and fragmentation. Fracturing words, syntax, and narrative diminishes extra-textual reference—a function that masks social control by presenting language as transparent—in favor of re-routing signifying processes to reveal oppressive social coding.9 As an ostentatiously open discursive field, the disjunctive text short-circuits passive readership and its maintenance of given social grammars, demanding the co-production rather than the consumption of meaning.10 Goldsmith in particular has staked Conceptual writing on negations of these values of Language poetry. In his introduction to a dossier on Conceptual writing and Flarf in the journal Poetry we find:
Start making sense. Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building. . . . Why atomize, shatter, and splay language into nonsensical shards when you can hoard, store, mold, squeeze, shovel, soil, scrub, package, and cram the stuff into towers of words and castles of language with a stroke of the keyboard. . . . Let's just process what exists.
In an interview with the Finnish poet Leevi Lehto:
It's much more about the wholeness of language, the truth of language, rather than the artifice of fragmentation that is so inherent in much Language writing. . . Forget the New Sentence. The Old Sentence, if framed properly, is really odd enough.11
In an interview for Bomb Magazine's blog:
It's the idea that counts, not the reading of it. These books are impossible to read in the conventional sense. 20th century notions of illegibility were commonly bound up with a shattering of syntax and disjunction, but the 21st century's challenge to textual convention may be that of density and weight.
("So What Exactly")
Ironically, as should be evident from my epigraph, Goldsmith's claim on the "unreadable" for Conceptual writing, borrows a gesture from the repertoire of Language poetics: Steve McCaffery, for instance, discusses Language writing as unreadable in relation both to Barthes's notion of the writerly, anti-hermeneutical work (the reading of which is not a recovery or communication of meaning but a further writing), as well as to a more literal unreadability in which the text opens onto a libidinal economy beyond the semiotic.12 Mutatis mutandis, the new unreadable here serves to characterize Conceptual writing as hyper-contemporary, to identify it with an immersive digital culture that is somehow post-reading, while concomitantly dating (and rendering passé) Language writing, with its obsessive focus on an activated, writerly reader. Very recently, in remarks on his in-progress remake of Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project, Goldsmith again pointedly inverts this paradigm, stating that following Benjamin, his work will propose "writing as reading," meaning that his writing will be purely transcription (even as he notes The Arcades Project is compulsively readable).13 A few years earlier, Goldsmith undercuts the possibility of reading a Conceptualist work:
Just as new reading strategies had to be developed in order to read difficult modernist works of literature, so new reading strategies [are] emerging on the web: skimming, data aggregating, the employment of intelligent agents, to name but a few. Our reading habits seem to be imitating the way machines work: we could even say that online, by an inordinate amount of skimming in order to comprehend all the information passing before our eyes, we parse text—a binary process of sorting language—more than we read it. So this work demands a thinkership, not a readership.
("So What Exactly")
Reading in a culture of distraction has become literally machinic, thus technically not reading at all. Making free with discursive materials, forms, and techniques that solicit anti-reading, Conceptual writing requires a "thinkership"—a Duchampian "non-retinal" supplement—as its post-literary due. Yet if this contemporizing maneuver generates a thin, positive social agenda for the work—Goldsmith gives no sense of what a thinkership would be thinking about—it also misidentifies the strengths of Conceptualist projects, as it points to certain problems in various self-descriptions and -representations.
For instance, the modeling of Conceptual writing on Conceptual art, Goldsmith's catchy "thinkership" evincing a connection to what has been termed "Idea Art." This medium envy is also readily apparent in Dworkin's masterful introductory essay, "The Fate of Echo," to the formidable Against Expression anthology, even as Dworkin, in strong contrast to Goldsmith, forthrightly argues for the importance of reading Conceptual writing (xxxvii). Firming up the connection between Conceptual art and Conceptual writing—"Although the focus of this anthology is resolutely literary, a comparison of the conceptual literature presented here with the range of interventions made by the foundational works of conceptual art is still instructive" (xxiv)—Dworkin goes on to offer brilliant readings of canonical works of Conceptual art. Yet perhaps a more skeptical approach, refining the terms of that earlier movement and questioning its self-representations, and homing in more surgically on its uses of language, would have helped to clarify the stakes of Conceptual writing. Further, his discussion also offers something of a dual historical narrative, in which Conceptual art both progressively dematerializes the art object through the use of language as idea (culminating in Lawrence Weiner's agnos ticism regarding whether a work is ever made from a stated concept) and comes to treat language itself as pure matter (along the lines of Robert Smithson). Conceptual writing picks up from where this second ending leaves off, as Dworkin posits, "rejecting outright the ideologies of disembodied themes and abstracted content. The opacity of language is a conclusion of conceptual art but already a premise for conceptual writing" (xxxvi). He goes on to equate this "opacity" with language treated as "quantifiable data," and as we are then reminded to read "textual details," Conceptual writing's materials handling, its purported reduction of language to matter, surfaces as an intriguingly messier issue. Despite Dworkin's ingenious epigraph from Deleuze and Guattari: "Even concepts are haecceities and events in themselves," "idea" and "concept" are also used as given by Conceptual art.
But perhaps more important and more pertinent to this discussion are the burdened terms "context" and "reframing" on which the new Conceptualist project also rests. Drawing on the legacy of Duchamp, Pop art, Conceptual art, and Appropriation art, Conceptual writing relies on such uncreative annexing maneuvers as "nomination," "selection," and "reframing" (xxiv-xxvi). "The intelligent organization or reframing of already extant text is enough," Dworkin writes. "[P]reviously written language comes to be seen and understood in a new light, and so both the anthology as a whole—with its argument for the importance of the institutions within which a text is presented—and the works it contains are congruent: a context, for both, is everything. The circumstance, as the adage has it, alters the case" (xliv). Citation is necessarily case-sensitive; so, perhaps, is the very definition of "circumstance." Which is to say, if context is everything, what exactly is context? 14 On the post-Derridean assumption that, "There are only contexts without any center of absolute anchoring," Dworkin offers more of a description of reframing methods than an account of how these methods work, with their readers, to generate new, consequential meanings.15 Is the pivotal contextual circumstance internal or external to the text, or does Conceptual writing somehow especially spoil this distinction?16 If the "mode of strict citation" is key to these enactments of recontextualization, what do we make of that concomitant pull or stalling of identity?17 Can reframing be considered a mode of interpretation, or better put, a mechanical means of manipulation inevitably both implementing and encouraging further interpretation? Conceptual writing's reframings are further described as reflecting "remix culture": "In the twenty-first century, conceptual poetry thus operates against the background of related vernacular practices, in a climate of pervasive participation and casual appropriation" (xlii). How does Conceptual writing comment on rather than simply instantiate these practices under the auspices of "literature"? 18
Citationality is central to many versions of Language poetics. In Bernstein's work, Marjorie Perloff notes, we may see a general mass media contamination of language such that every discourse appears as a reified "-ese."19 In a number of essays, Bruce Andrews underscores the fictive consensus of official discourse, revealing its politics; conversely, he argues, insofar as the social coding and control of difference makes up a unified system, its grammar must be broken down by rejecting representation and improvising rules and individualizing processes of meaning-making.20 Dworkin himself has supplied an exemplary discussion of the "indeterminate citationality" in Lyn Hejinian's My Life: "[T]he text . . . emphasizes its citationality by incorporating apparently quoted material without quotation marks and, conversely . . . framing some phrases in marks of quotation without apparent significance and without citing a speaker or source" ("Penelope Reworking" 62). As Dworkin further points out, "Context in My Life is all to the point" (70)—the particular brilliance of the text is its use of sentence repetition to reframe, producing an openness particularly inviting of participatory readership: "Since the composition of My Life is explicitly nonlinear, the likely thematic connections for many sentences are not always clear at first encounter, and the text inscribes within its architectonics a necessary rereading" (72).
By contrast, Conceptual writing's use of citation is a more documentary affair: it does not so much utilize representative social textures or abyssal intertextuality as exploit the indexical valence of literal citation.21 As "The Fate of Echo" suggests, "if these poems are not referential in the sense of any conventionally realist diegesis, they point more directly to the archival record of popular culture and colloquial speech than any avant-pop potboiler or Wordsworthian ballad ever dreamed" (xlv). As I will discuss further below, instead of blurring the line between the quoted and the seemingly-quoted, Conceptual writing employs actual and often medium-sensitive quotation: even when the source is indeterminate, that is, more in keeping with distributed, corporate, anonymous or automated authorship especially pertinent to web-based material, that indexical quality is there. Further, if an archival ethic is at the core of, for instance, Language writer Susan Howe's work, while other Language poets, too, made use of specified documents and vocabularies, these tend not to be de-personalized, rule-bound (if always subjectively enacted) manipulations or annexations of text.22

Notes on Conceptualisms: A Readership v. A "Thinkership"

Notes on Conceptualisms (2008), a slim volume by Conceptualists Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place that describes Conceptual writing and situates it in the contemporary cultural landscape, comprises an elegantly presented set of aphoristic notes, numbered, with alphabetical subheads. The format recalls both Sol LeWitt's numbered Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969) and scientistic philosophy such as Wittgenstein's Tractatus. A performance not quite outrageous enough to be a hoax, the work is written in the rhetoric and idiom of high theory, complete with diagrams. It mentions, among others, Badiou, Lacan, Žižek, and theorist of modernism and gender Christine Buci-Glucksmann. It is playful, arrogant, sometimes contradictory, sometimes hermetic, and quite abstract—the result of two savvy cultural producers crafting a position between, on one hand, a baseline cynicism completed by Adorno and Horkheimer's despairing chapter on the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment and theories of the avant garde post-Peter Bürger and Paul Mann, and, on the other, an oppositional stance towards media capitalism.
With precursors in, for instance, Goldsmith's week of blog posts at the Poetry Foundation site (2007), Notes on Conceptualisms sets out to identify methods of Conceptual writing, the relationship of authors to the materials used and to the texts produced with them, and the impact that textual structures generated by procedures have on the meaning and signification of works. In fact, however, much of Fitterman and Place's thinking revolves around what they call "pure conceptualism," or unadulterated appropriation or reframing of text, a technique both authors have used in a number of works. Most space in Notes is given to aperçus about art's capacity for critical cultural work—such as institutional critique—and what undermines it. While Goldsmith claims "unboring boring" antecedents in John Cage and Andy Warhol, and Dworkin edited a volume of Vito Acconci's early writings, Fitterman and Place situate their observations only abstractly with regard to conceptual (such as Sol LeWitt), post-conceptual (such as Mike Kelley), and appropriation (such as Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, and Sherrie Levine) artists. They focus more intently on art criticism of appropriation art produced in the early 1980s by October, Artforum, and Art in America contributors, which coalesce around the term "allegory."
In Notes, allegory is first introduced as a tactic for saying slant what would be repressed as straight (13),23 and then described as "a narrative mediation between image . . . and meaning" (14). Fitterman and Place state, "Conceptual writing mediates between the written object . . . and the meaning of the object by framing the writing as a figural object to be narrated . . . conceptual writing creates an object that creates its own disobjectification" (15-6). A context for these oblique claims is produced by subsequent references to Hal Foster's "Subversive Signs" (1982), Craig Owens's "The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism" (1980), and Benjamin Buchloh's "Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art" (1982).24 Buchloh's essay is based on Benjamin's concept of allegory developed in The Origins of German Tragic Drama and essays on Baudelaire. As Benjamin writes, "The devaluation of objects in allegory is surpassed in the world of objects itself by the commodity" (cited in Buchloh 166). As Buchloh explains, appropriation practices re-allegorize the allegory of the commodification process. "The allegorical mind," he states, "sides with the object and protests against its devaluation to the status of a commodity by devaluating it a second time in allegorical practice. . . . The repetition of the original act of depletion and the new attribution of meaning redeems the object" (166). Clearly, then, Conceptual writing focuses on texts ripe for de-reification through allegorization, though Fitterman and Place incessantly deflate this project: in the wake of what they see as the failure of the oppositional art movements of the twentieth century, they view all such negating maneuvers as pre-destined for reabsorption within capitalist machinery. Of course, this is hardly news. But one way they do mark the here and now is through their programmatic debasement of reading as misguided or irrelevant with regard to Conceptual writing, which is in turn tied to its status as readymade, with all its purported ambivalence as the sine qua non of the dialectical movement from the liquidation of tradition to institutional recuperation.
Thus, they speak, for instance, of Conceptual Writing as a critical meta-text: "To the degree conceptual writing depends on its extra-textual features for its narration, it exists—like the readymade—as a radical reframing of the world. Because ordinary language does not use itself to reflect upon itself" (Notes 39). Likewise, they state: "Allegorical writing (particularly in the form of 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" (20). Given this almost naïve, not fully historicized alignment of their project with readymades (e.g. Duchamp's snow-shovel, Levine's re-photographs) as engaged in anti-capitalist irony, in immanent ideological critique, Fitterman and Place's countering cynicism is remarkable: "Consider the retyping of a random issue of The New York Times as an act of radical mimesis . . . [this gesture is a critique] of the leveling and loading medium of media . . . [and is] inseparable from the replication of the error under critique. Replication is a sign of desire" (20). If authorial appropriation is simultaneously critique of a nd an active identification, a fascination, with its object, so too can the viewer's reception be both a critical reading and passive consumption. Quoting Hal Foster's influential statement in "Subversive Signs" that the 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 spectacle" (cited 18-9), they remark: "Note that 'more than' and 'rather than' betray a belief in the segregation or possible segregation of these concepts; conceptualism understands they are hinged" (18). The double-edge of the textual readymade is at its dullest sharpest, however, when Place and Fitterman suggest that the critical interprete r's non-reading is precisely equivalent to the non-reading that contemporary culture already calls for: "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 idea of the work. In this sense, pure conceptualism's readymade properties capitulate to and mirror the easy consumption/generation of text and the devaluation of reading in the larger culture" (25). Place and Fitterman thus give a new twist to the catchphrase Kenneth Goldsmith invokes when speaking of his work as unreadable.
Notes on Conceptualisms echoes Goldsmith's over-reliance on a passage from Sol LeWitt's Paragraphs on Conceptualism (1967): "In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art."25 But to take LeWitt's statement as a synecdoche for Conceptual art is highly problematic. Both Goldsmith's and Fitterman and Place's thinking in part recapitulates the logic illuminated by Liz Kotz's recent important genealogical work on Conceptual art, Words To Be Looked At. Rather than viewing Conceptual Art as solely defining itself against retinal visual art, Words To Be Looked At gazes across artistic media to ground Conceptual art in post-World War II, Western innovations in music, performance art, and poetry. For Kotz, John Cage is an especially seminal figure: Cage radically re-envisioned the musical score by canceling it, most especially in 4'33", as a notated representation of the music to be played. The score became instead a set of largely verbal directions or instructions and thus autonomous from traditional, specialized musical language and grammar (using, for instance, objective temporal measurements of seconds, rather than measurement in bars and signature). Cage's deracination and restructuring of the score made it a form that could be mobilized (as it mutated) across media, eventually providing the framework for Conceptualism, in which "the work of art has been reconfigured as a specific realization of a general proposition" (194). Conceptualism and other late 1960s art practices thus renovate the ontology of the visual artwork such that it comes to resemble that of music: "Particular materials are merely specific presentations . . . for a general idea that is the work" (191), while "the information of a piece is understood as something that can be abstracted from an individual manifestation" (199).
Ironically, Fitterman and Place's focus on "pure conceptualism," or a text based on unadulterated appropriation of another text, is ill-served by their model of Conceptualism as idea-based, or, as Kotz puts it, "a specific realization of a general proposition" (198). To represent a text as it has been given is not to use a proposition, directive, or procedure as a tool for processing materials to realize a work. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. Procedural texts themselves cannot be reduced to expendable, mechanistic iterations of a concept: their particularity always already spoils or resists recuperation into the general schema from which they issued. Many procedural texts underscore the pointed indeterminacy, contradiction, andelasticity with which they embody the general. This is why they should be (or are meant to be) read. 26 Relatedly, we might inquire whether such schema-based or reframing works' de-retinization of literature is really analogous to Conceptual art's de-retinization of visual art. "If we return to the conventional account of conceptual art," Barrett Watten asks, "what becomes of the dematerialization of the art object, in which art's opticality is transposed to language, when the medium is language itself?" (141). As noted above, Conceptual artists realized their anti-aesthetic by turning to language as the non-sensuous medium of the idea, even as language could also be recognized as (also) matter (cf. the title of Robert Smithson's 1967 press release for an exhibition of language-based art, "LANGUAGE to be LOOKED at and/or THINGS to be READ"). Fitterman and Place propose literature's self-transcendence along similar lines: "in some highly mimetic (i.e., highly replicative) conceptual writings, the written word is the visual image" (17). Conceptual writing passes through the merely retinal on its way to becoming non-retinal. Yet if "Art as Idea" subverts or negates the visual with the verbal and explores discursive problems subtending perception, aesthetic experience, and definitions and institutions of visual art, Conceptual writing does not seem to instantiate the reverse. Conceptualist artists particularly invested in the materiality of language, such as Mel Bochner, were interested in processes of reading, in part because they saw language as mediating or always working in concert with the visual and as the material support of thought. In this sense, much Conceptual art is not an allegorical practice: the text that is so often the art is not meant to be jettisoned in the process of getting to meaning—it is put forth as materially imbricated with that meaning.27
Notes' other model for understanding the wholesale confiscation of text, the D uchampian readymade, distorts Duchamp's particular construction of the non-retinal by equating the "readymade" with "reframing." What is central to the readymade is neither its laying bare of the act of nomination that (un)grounds art—the presentation under the auspices of art an ordinary, mass produced, unaesthetic object—nor its explosion of the divide between life and art. A readymade should instead be understood through its peculiar, accompanying linguistic apparatus as well as its context of display. For instance, Duchamp's Trebuchet [Trap] (1917) is a coat rack nailed to the floor, its contextual position key to the work, as is its punning title, which plays on the French word "trebucher," "to stumble," also a term in chess for a move that trips one's opponent. As Marjorie Perloff has argued, such works are conceptual insofar as they function as interactive, visual-verbal puzzles, in which language delays apprehension of object as the object delays apprehension of language.28 Dalia Judovitz, in Unpacking Duchamp, offers as an interpretation of the readymade an ingenious play on "mechanical reproduction": the readymade plays upon and rhetoricizes artistic conventions and components and as such is less a production than a meta-production or reproduction presuming that literacy. Through its various strategies of punning delay, the readymade creates a highly active transitivity around object and language. As a switch for activating this contra-banal performativity, it embodies a conceptual mechanism or machine. To discuss the readymade without reference to reading makes no sense, even as reading is coupled with thinking, as a process of riddling out meaning.29
Such complications thus perhaps reposition the readymade as poised for a "thinkership"—but the readymade is insistently stripped down once again to an operation of bare reframing in Vanessa Place's recent "Afterword" to I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. "I have previously identified many forms of conceptualism, ranging from the pure t o the baroque," Place writes, referring to Notes. "I have come to consider conceptualism, qua conceptualism, that is," she continues,
as writing that does not self-interpret, is not self-reflexive . . . writing in which the content does not dictate the content: what appears on the surface of the page is pure textual materiality, no more (and often much less) than what you see on the surface of the page. Conversely . . . conceptualism is also writing in which the context is the primary locus of meaning-making. I have written elsewhere that all conceptualism is allegorical, that is to say, its textual surface (or content) may or may not contain a kind of significance, but this surface significance (or content) is deployed against or within an extra-textual narrative (or contextual content) that is the work's larger (and infinitely mutable) meaning. . . . After all . . . there remains only one who matters—the one who encounters this text or that text in this or that textual context, and in this and that contextualizing context only one remains—the reader who is the thinker. . . .
"Context" here remains undefined even as, poised against "content" and indeed replacing the content as such, context is entirely accountable for the meaningfulness of the conceptual work. Is the "textual context" the here and now of the reader (true of every copy of any text, whether presented as appropriated or not)? Or is that "contextualizing context" supplied by an allegorical act of appropriation or reframing, and if so, why and how does such re-presentation transmute the text? Further, the "thinker" who interacts with this context again becomes the copula for "reader," while the text here "encountered" is portrayed (impossibly) as utterly divested of cues for uptake. This may refer to "pure" conceptualism's asceticism in relation to its handling of the text: Place also notes elsewhere in her commentary on the anthology that some writing in it she doesn't consider conceptualism in that "much of it dictates its reception, contains within its writing the way or ways in which it would be read" (447).
I want to suggest, therefore, not only that unmanipulated readymade works may nonetheless position their readers, but also that the primary texts chosen for reframing, far from being "infinitely mutable," may pose productive resistance to travel. "Conceptual writing . . . exists—like the readymade—as a radical reframing of the world." In this passage from Notes, "world" seems inadvertently substituted for "text," a switch that in fact deconstructs the crucial point about the work of reframing. For perhaps the textual readymade does not exploit but rather short-circuits the fungibility of texts among contexts. ("Epistemic contextualism is embedded in every material form insofar as that form is the product of both an articulation and a reception," Place concedes in a recent interview.30) Instead of operating the iterability that allows language to travel from context to context, by turns sloughing off and building on prior instances of which none is proper, the Conceptual readymade involves a form of citation that is indexical. Like a photograph of language in language, the readymade text does not circulate among contexts promiscuously and anew, but takes its world with it. And yet the textual readymade, over against this would be self-effacing documentary effect, also draws attention to its work of mediation, its re-siting and medium translation of the text it captures. Goldsmith has asserted Conceptual writing as a "poetics of flux, celebrating instability and uncertainty:" "Disposability, fluidity, and recycling . . . Today [words are] glued to a page but tomorrow they could re-emerge as a Facebook meme. . . . This new writing is not bound exclusively between pages of a book; it continually morphs from printed page to web page, from gallery space to science lab, from social spaces of poetry readings to social spaces of blogs"; "Conceptual Writing . . . uses its own subjectivity to construct a linguistic machine that words may be poured into; it cares little for the outcome" ("Introduction [Flarf & Conceptual Writing]" 315). With its blithe frictionlessness, Goldsmith's model for the medium-hopping text is the extensibility of content, through markup coding, in new media. But, of course, what this hyperbolic portrayal of liquidity trades on is a post-medium condition in which recontextualization can hardly register as such. N. Katherine Hayles's "Translating Media: Why We Should Rethink Textuality" offers the perfect riposte: "The largely unexamined assumption here is that ideas about textuality forged in a print environment can be carried over wholesale to the screen . . . as if 'text' were an inert, nonreactive substance that can be poured from container to container without affecting its essential nature" (267). Because texts are in-formed by the emergent materiality of the media embodying them, medium translation, as Hayles adamantly maintains, impacts reading and meaning.
In contrast to Goldsmith's vision of medium-fluidity, then, I would argue that many Conceptual readymades engage in aggressive, strategic medium translation. In a suggestive passage from the beginning of The Textual Condition, Jerome McGann writes, "Every text has variants of itself screaming to get out, or antithetical texts waiting to make themselves known. These variants and antitheses appear (and multiply) over time, as the hidden features of the textual media are developed and made explicit" (10). Conceptual readymades realize these antithetical versions of texts: despite using found materials, they are highly authored works that appropriate reflexively medium-specific texts and re-mediate them in formats that work against their original purposes. Which means that re-framing may be seen as a dialogic, not to say antagonistic, affair, engaging the past medial incarnation of a text, as well as its pragmatic, interactive context, its world. One electronic work deploying precisely this tactic is Place's "After Lyn Hejinian," featured at the 2010 "Print <3 data-blogger-escaped-ball.="ball." data-blogger-escaped-college="college" data-blogger-escaped-columbia="columbia" data-blogger-escaped-digital="digital" data-blogger-escaped-printer="printer" data-blogger-escaped-s="s" data-blogger-escaped-sup="sup" data-blogger-escaped-themed="themed">31
Place's 70-minute work, composed on Twitter and screened in the common area of the festival, consists entirely of passages appropriated from the beginning, middle, and end of Lyn Hejinian's My Life. The remediation in tweet format cuts the sentences of My Life into 140-character segments, while Place cites discontinuously from the work, excising parts of the text. Discussed above in terms of citation and re-contextualization, My Life is studded with leitmotifs and repetitions that propose multiple narratives or thematic paths to readers who themselves link its discontinuous units. Offering itself, in Juliana Spahr's formulation, as a locus of "reciprocity and exchange," My Life encourages its reader, as Hejinian writes in the "The Rejection of Closure," "to cover the distance to the next sentence" (46), indeed to move back and forth in the text continually emending meaning (70). Given this particular phenomenology of reading, which requires a spatial interaction with the full text as a non-linear field, Place's appropriation comes into view as an aggressive medium translation. The tweet, which is used strategically to isolate and autonomize not even sentences but arbitrary character-packets, deracinates Hejinian's deliberate, paratactic ensemble as conjunction-to-be-composed. The Twitter format calls for a mode of reading in an economy of distraction and divided attention, belonging to quite a different social network assemblage. (Likewise, what Spahr calls Hejinian's "nonpersonal mix of confession and everyday observation" (68), a mode that genericizes her text to produce a non-egocentric autobiography as cultural critique (77), Place purposely echoes by using the generic background template for her Twitter feed.) The frisson of "After Lyn Hejinian" is its debasement of My Life, predicated not only on its non-analytic dismantlement of that text, but also on its invocation and negation of the creative reading practice that, in its original medium, My Life invites.

"Radical Mimesis" in the Information Economy

Day provides another case in point. Goldsmith, in "Being Boring," lovingly documents the process of medium translation in which he engaged as he digitized an issue of the newspaper in newsprint—if, ironically, only to choose the codex as the appropriate output device for the project. "It became this wild sort of obsession to peel the text off the page of the newspaper and force it into the fluid medium of the digital," he writes. "I felt like I was taking the newspaper, giving it a good shake, and watching as the letters tumbled off the page into a big pile, transforming the static language that was glued to the page into moveable type." Darren Wershler-Henry has discussed how the epigraph to Day—Truman Capote's slur on Jack Kerouac: "That's not writing. That's typing"—does not actually describe the production of the book, as Goldsmith OCR'd it, noting that computing as flow calls for a different model of authorship than a typewritten text (Wershler-Henry 165). Goldsmith himself states he did both, albeit typing not on a (Romantic) typewriter but into a word processing document: "Everywhere there was a bit of text in the paper, I grabbed it. . . . If it could be considered text, I had to have it. Even if there was, say, an ad for a car, I took a magnifying glass and grabbed the text off the license plate. Between retyping and OCR'ing, I finished the book in a year" ("Being Boring"). Craig Dworkin, by contrast, underscores Goldsmith's medium translation in terms of the book: "At the micro-level, [Day's] distinctive facture arises from a peculiar textual democratization, reducing the newspaper's patchwork carnival of fonts and typefaces to the book page's uniform print-block of equal-weight twelve-point Times" ("Zero Kerning" 18). Christopher Schmidt, under the impression that Goldsmith did in fact (slavishly-cum-heroically) re-type the entire newspaper, argues that he overworked himself as a reader: he has "read the newspaper like a book (doggedly left-to-right, rather than scattershot, as one might read a newspaper), and in the process, produced a book" (26). According to Schmidt, this extreme makeover of the newspaper into literature amounts to a critique of the print commodity's obsolescence, reminding us of the labor creating the newspaper requires on a daily basis. Yet this valorized immersive reading germane to the book medium, representative of an effaced labor process, is oddly enough congruent, to turn back to Wershler-Henry, to a mode of reading even more debased than the scanning of headlines: the reproduction of text by scanner. If Day is, among other things, a way of representing machinic versus distractive scanning, Goldsmith, with his use of a magnifying glass, in fact aims above the probable capabilities of any scanner to grab text, copying it too perfectly in a kind of inversion of the Duchampian inframince.
Day emerges, then, as a work that cannot be glibly reduced to idea. It demands to be read and is centrally about reading in the variety of modes pertinent to our contemporary media ecology.32 Its use of strategic medium translation necessarily invokes the initial situatedness of the readymade text in a particular medium-as-an-extended field: medium considered as an assemblage that includes production, publication, promotion, distribution, consumption, institutional intake, as well as the material vehicle of the text. Medium translation is one of an array of techniques of radical mimesis that double, displace, draw attention to, comment on, and/or deconstruct the nodes and circuits of the information economy. Such mimesis, too, enables "transference," as Caroline Bergvall seems to suggest (18). Conceptual writing's radical mimesis also gives onto problematics of labor, valorization, commodity forms, and temporalities that penetrate and generate our contemporary immersive media environment, positioning authorial and artistic labor within and as reflective of this economic context. Removing us from the misguided endgame of explosion/recuperation associated with the readymade that always already condemns it to failure, the paradigm of radical mimesis involves, as a number of art critics and historians have suggested, a shadowing and complicating of past and present economic realities and cultural practices and objects.33
In a version of the poetics of general economy, Goldsmith writes in "Uncreativity as Creative Practice," "I'm interested in a valueless practice. Nothing has less value than yesterday's news. . . . I'm interested in quantifying and concretizing the vast amount of 'nutritionless' language; I'm also interested in the process itself being equally nutritionless."34 If the purity of this expenditure is challenged by its neo-Dada cachet, as well as by Goldsmith's own testimony about his process as pedagogically and otherwise rewarding, in a recent talk Richard Owens in turn characterizes Conceptual writing as styling itself along lines of "fictitious capital," "disarticulated from processes of production" as it exploits the results of prior productive labor, hyper-inflating its recycled reproductions ("Finance"). Owens further notes, vis-à-vis Goldsmith's "Information Management," a tendency to "privilege curatorial and administrative practices" involving "the ability to manage, circulate, and reframe" writing otherwise characterized as a "worthless heap," thus aligning the Conceptualist with "an executive position . . . along a vertical axis of diversified tasks within production" as opposed to "the labor of making at the ground level."35 Owens's argument is complicated both by the distributed (and potentially automated) primary authorship of some of these texts as well as a consideration as labor of the "immaterial labor," as termed by Maurizio Lazzarato, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri.36 Over against his executive posturing, Goldsmith elsewhere characterizes his artistic labor as congruent to that of the digital sweatshop: "I've transformed from a writer into an information manager, adept at the skills of replicating, organizing, mirroring, archiving, hoarding, storing, reprinting, bootlegging, plundering, and transferring. I've needed to acquire a whole new skill set: I've become a master typist, an exacting cut-and-paster, and an OCR demon. There's nothing I love more than transcription; I find few things more satisfying than collation" ("Being Boring"). This is not clean, managerial reproduction, given that Goldsmith's description points beyond his own practice to the decidedly material conditions of, as Wershler-Henry notes, "a globalized milieu where multinational corporations routinely outsource the digitization of their print archives to firms in India, China and the Philippines" (163). In this self-portrait of poetic reskilling, creative class transcodes itself (even slums) as data entry, even as its ludic mimesis of the dirty work of the information economy both draws attention to production processes and problematizes what counts as artistic or authorial effort; what seems at stake here is its staging and provocation of "anxieties that surround changing definitions and divisions of labor" and valorization (Molesworth 48).
Replaying what Benjamin Buchloh dubbed Conceptual art's "aesthetic of administration" from vantages of executive and office drudge, the new Conceptualists do not simply appropriate but appropriate appropriation, highly conscious both that they revisit aesthetic strategies and that the 2.0 scenario calls for these repetitions with a difference.37 This historicity is shed in Nicholas Bourriard's discussion of postproduction in contemporary art: he describes appropriative practices as a mode of coping with the destabilizing, chaotic epistemic and social conditions produced by the Internet.38 In one version of postproduction, artists seize pre-existing forms by accessibly repurposing them rather than referring to their history. In another version, navigation, artists become cultural purveyors or curators who may be thought of as service workers "imagining links" among denuded particulars, thus creating "likely relations between disparate sites"; they "project scripts" onto culture to make the welter signify, to give some subset of it relevance and currency (18). With navigation, as with the customized or personalized reconstitution of de-historicized forms for purposes of social bonding, artists perform affective labor that is refused by much Conceptual writing.39 Robert Fitterman distinctly rejects speaking as a representative or docent or fashioning experiential works that program affective response. When asked in an interview with Coldfront magazine what his five favorite bands are, Fitterman states, "My tastes are broad and indelicate"; when asked for his five favorite films, Fitterman literally pastes in the schedule for a Cineplex. In declining to treat his readymade materials as open forms for connectivity and identification, Fitterman further refuses to perform experience-making services that are part and parcel of the contemporary agenda for art. In other words, he is not in the business of producing livable, immediately cathectable forms.40
Radical mimesis allows for immanent critique, negativity, and parody, or may instantiate forms of refusal. It is at core a mode of exploration that seems particularly appropriate to this moment of extreme change in the face of new media economy and culture. I see such practice as complementary to Jacques Rancière's call for a "redistribution of the sensible," insofar as it encourages us to mix modalities of perception to view business as usual and thus allows us a better purchase on the distribution of the sensible as it stands.41 Further, if radical mimesis can function as illuminating iteration or simulation of social phenomena, a replay at once in quotation marks and itself a real instance, the use of readymades can also mobilize a referential function that not only reveals that exact citation exceeds itself but also works as a recontextualization that is palimpsestic, over against Bourriard's notion of a deracinated cultural commons inviting sharing, authentic and stabilized subjective expression, and responsibility-less use.
I want to turn, then, to Robert Fitterman's practices of radical mimesis in four recent Conceptualist works: Rob the Plagiarist; Metropolis XXX: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Rob's Word Shop; and Sprawl. Attending carefully to these works will draw out the ways in which Conceptualist writing, even in the form of the textual readymade, demands a complex engagement of reading as it maintains social and political negativity.

Rob the Plagiarist: Others Writing By Robert Fitterman 2000-2008 (2009)

Guy Debord and Gil Wolman's "Methods of Detournement" (1956) notes, "There is not much future in the detournement of complete novels" (11). But it does suggest that canonical works be retitled with titles from forgotten mass media ephemera. Fitterman's Rob the Plagiarist uses a version of this strategy by appropriating for its own the cover of Dan Brown's mass-market novel The Da Vinci Code (2003), complete with its promotional material: "C oming Soon: A Major Motion Picture" and "A #1 Bestseller Worldwide." (The image is actually a slight alteration that ridicules the esoterism of The Da Vinci Code by swirling plainly iconic visual codes over the Mona Lisa's face. The design, we might further note, doubles Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q.") Rob the Plagiarist's back cover, which features a photograph of Fitterman as poet-author, at once gentleman scholar and corporate executive, flanked by books, reminds us, with its simulative mimesis of the author photo, that such conventions not only serve to bond book to originating author, but also to authorize the book for commerce. The book also contains the familiar promotional inserts before the title-leaf. "Praise for Rob the Plagiarist" is copied precisely from The Da Vinci Code, but for the replacement of Fitterman's title for the original in each blurb. (Real blurbs for the book can be found on its last interior page.) So, too, the epigraph of the first section of the book is a long, exact citation from the first chapter of the novel.
Fitterman's radical mimesis of The Da Vinci Code reminds us that poetry in general, and the small press publication in particular, is inimical to such mass media. At the same time, his mapping of the mass-market paperback directly onto the site of poetry forces us to see that if poetry in contemporary America is rarely commodified to the extent that other cultural forms are, our encounters with poems themselves are nonetheless mediated by external networks of valorization. In turn, cited materials become ciphers for lyrics—ersatzes that have a "reveal-codes" function, allowing us to see that what we more properly call "poetry" is pre-read or unread, doesn't need to be read, in that it has already accrued its value and authority by virtue of how its positioned within institutional networks or by means of the auspices of brand-like authorship.42 Yet while such citations can be likened to blank counters (like Allan McCullom's Plaster Surrogates, sets of framed, ersatz, black-square "paintings"), MacGuffins that set a system in motion and make its dynamics visible, they can also more literally enact the "displacement of art by its own support, by its own spectacle" (Foster 105). This happens in the poem "[READING]," which cites the (outdated) promotional materials/calendar for the Line Reading series, among others, including (painfully) the authors' bios and credentials—perhaps compulsively readable for other poets. Similar is "National Laureate," which under the name of each of the fifty states cites a few verbatim lines from that state's poet laureate. Such poems of poetry's institutionality are coupled with poems that denaturalize literature as subjective expression, such as "The Sun Also Also Rises," which collects together the sentences beginning with the pronoun "I" from Hemingway's novel. Likewise, the epigraph of the book's second section is the opening of Dickens' Great Expectations, already famously plagiarized by Kathy Acker in her book Great Expectations—plagiarism itself is already mediated by, routed through, prior plagiarism.

Metropolis XXX: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (2004)

Conceptual writing projects often work with database sources and/or with texts that present themselves or can be read as totalizing systems. Here, it would seem, authors use modes of composition appropriate to the digital age. Yet as Craig Dworkin convincingly argues in "Imaginary Solutions," these works are best understood in light of a non-linear view of literary experimentalism. Indeed, Dworkin focuses in on "the radical dilation of modernist experiments by twenty-first century writers, who magnify and distend what were the tentative, occasional, and local tactics of early modernism into aggressive, explicit, and comprehensive strategies of textual production . . . these . . . works are less a belated or revised modernism than a kind of modernism in extremis" (31). As it turns out, certain analog projects were "proleptic: their striking forms anticipate the computerized new media that would seem to be their ideal vehicle" (30). The exaggeration and hyperbolic consummation of such strategies is thus anything but nostalgic—which tactic could more befit our postmodern situation of Total Information Awareness?
Edward Gibbon's monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89) is a totalizing project of history about the unraveling of a project of total empire. Yet the textual totality Gibbon presents must be considered stubbornly analog: averse to total information, the book's main achievement was in selecting from among a massive stock of facts to produce a coherent thematic narrative of decline interpolated with exposition of its underlying causality. Fitterman considers his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (2004), an installment of his epic work Metropolis, an "updated version" of Gibbon's original, and I am tempted to read his poetics in this work as an analogization of digital culture. Initially to have been titled The Decline and Fall (Sale) of the Roman Empire, the book distantly echoes Gibbon's reiteration of the classical explanation for Rome's decline: the loss of civic virtue, as bolstered by his representation of the Praetorian guard auctioning off the empire to the highest bidder. As Lytle Shaw has noted, Fitterman's Decline and Fall foregrounds how contemporary urban space is mediated by a "digital metropolis" that grounds itself by simulating an older regime of face-to-face encounters, "[operating] as a kind of ghostly afterlife of previous urban interactions" (44). (An actual urban space, we might note, is thus haunted by this haunting.) On a larger scale than the polis, Fitterman's "B9D" sections feature a firm that does global executive outsourcing; Gibbon himself saw the Roman Empire's outsourcing of defense to foreign mercenaries as a cause of its downfall.
But perhaps the book's main resistance to network capitalism lies in its implied anti-totalitarian stance towards the Internet. Gibbon himself included in his history a running commentary comparing Roman vicissitudes with contemporary British ones; Fitterman in turn does not simply allegorize twenty-first century America as a decadent, collapsing Rome, but complicates this parallel by proposing and problematizing the Internet as a reflection of the imperial American social totality, what Shaw calls "an imagining of a seemingly unpicturable imperial reality" (44), as well as its main totalizing instrument. If the Internet is mainly viewed as a sublime object because it is incomprehensibly large, though comprehensively systemic and reflexive, Fitterman subtly suggests that we might consider the virtual environment more an instantiation of a Žižekian kernel of the real, a resistance to totalization.43
This program is carried out within an ironically totalizing, tightly structured form. Just as Gibbon is thought to have inaugurated modern historiography with his preference for and extensive use of primary sources, so does Fitterman do away with mediation. The entire work assembles "large, unmodified chunks" of text from a gamut of Internet commerce sites, a representative sampling of hyper-contemporary discourses of commodification. Fitterman's 30 chapters do not exactly mirror Gibbon's original schema. Instead, it is designed with internal symmetry. Each of 15 chapters has a duplicate. The text thus totalizes itself through this internal reflection. Actual price tags or more explicit commodification come to replace initial sales pitches in many of the doubled chapters. For instance, the first "Rubber Ducks" chapter gives directions for display: "Rubber Duck Alignment: Side-by-Side Lineup / Made popular by the Radio City Rockettes, this method of lining up is best at promoting a risqué attitude" (39); the second one is a list of prices: "Sunny Duck (beak color may vary) $3.95 . . . Scuba Duck $3.95/Referee Duck $3.95/Blues Brothers Duck $6.95" (46). The first time around, adumbrating Gibbon's famous chapters on the rise of Christianity, the "Popes" section comprises a compilation of end-time prophecies of saints and popes updated for the twenty-first century; the second time Christianity becomes farce, reduced to a selection of items from a "product directory" at
A particularly brilliant feature of Fitterman's selections is the various totalizing aspirations of each site, from representations of commodity universes; to products that are themselves universes, such as a cruise ship, a New Testament-themed mini-golf course, "protective packaging systems"; to meta-business listings, such as the titles of booths at a business expo for other business expos to solicit participants; to firms with a global reach, such as a European telecom research partnership. If Baudrillard was one of the first to articulate a fallen sociability in the form of information networks whose nodes interpenetrate each other without resistance, this paranoiac nightmare takes on more the valence of an imperial dream evinced in these sites of the total capillarity of Internet capitalism, conscripting every possible customer in its universal embrace.44

Rob's Word Shop (2010)

Enlarging on his own practice of radical mimesis, in May 2010, in the Bowery in New York City, Fitterman opened a storefront enterprise called "Rob's Word Shop," only a few blocks from where, in 1961, Claes Oldenburg had installed "The Store," where he sold sculptural replicas of mundane commodities. Fitterman instead purveyed words, written with a black Sharpie at the time of transaction on paper stamped and signed with authenticating certification. Individual letters could be purchased for fifty cents, while full words cost a dollar. As if the shop were a boutique, Fitterman and his clientele often collaborated on the purchase choice as. With its nod to Oldenburg and its use of archaic exchange mechanisms—rather out-dated receipts and stamps—and prices, Rob's Word Shop was not a nostalgic quasi-re-enactment but an ingenious, palimpsestic, ludic mimetic practice, simultaneously simulative and actual, implicating the actual as simulated. It drew attention to history and change in the arts and in the city at large. Fitterman's sold words, amounting almost to a counterfeiting operation, mime the commodification of language in cultural forms from advertising to literature to legal documents, trading the gift economy of everyday verbal mediation for commerce. If they point up the contemporary trend towards the abyssal abstraction of commodities, at the same time, these almost homespun language goods very cleverly, cannily mimic the ontological change in the work of art initiated by Warhol's iterative factory editioning of artworks and morphed by Conceptual art's model of the score-realization structure. They not only remind us that art is a special commodity of speculative or pure exchange value, but also that this shift to iterability becomes a nexus of capitalization in art.

Sprawl: Metropolis 30A (2010)

The greater part of Fitterman's 2010 work Sprawl, again entirely comprised of swathes of appropriated Internet text slightly adapted, presents itself as a map—approaching a 1:1 representation—of "Indian Mound Mall." While on one hand, the bulk of the book's structure is based on the physical site of the mall—Southgate Parking Garage, Levels 1-3, the Atrium, the Food Court, and the Cineplex—its textual mimesis of the mall's flora and fauna derives from the user-generated content of shopping chat rooms that vet the vendors and review the films. Albeit a slim volume, Sprawl may be viewed as a version of Walter Benjamin's mammoth, labyrinthine Arcades Project, which documents the 19th-century Parisian shopping arcades and a culture becoming saturated with and conditioned by modern commodity fetishism. Benjamin's iconoclastic sociological method in the work was precisely one of radicalizing citation: the Arcades Project was meant to "develop the art of citing," as he put it, "without quotation marks" (458). It is an elaborate system of quoted passages taken from hundreds of sources, organized into coded, cross-referenced dossiers and presented almost without buffering and orienting commentary, whereby he creates a "textual arcade" (Perloff, "Phantasmagorias" 27). Echoing Benjamin with its mall-mirroring architectonic, Sprawl also participates in the radically mimetic textual economies of the new ecopoetry, which, as Marcella Durand theorizes, "[takes] into itself ecological processes" (117): "Close concentration upon systems as systems can lead to the animation of poetic processes . . . the incipient and dynamic idea of poetry as ecosystem itself" (118). If, as David Buuck asserts, "The mall is the nature park, the horizon of the new pastoral. Poetics is the engaged navigation of such conflicted terrains" (18), Fitterman registers the mall as ecosystem, realizing an effective blurring or meshing of real and virtual space. Sprawl replicates how the society of the spectacle, the mall long one of its most potent sites, has mutated through Internet culture 2.0. Commodity spectacle before the passive consumer is replaced by ever-more insidious feedback loops in which shopping endlessly reflects on itself.
Benjamin saw his Arcades Project as emancipatory, as James Rolleston argues: the work mined revenants of commodity culture that seemed to promise an egalitarian society, in order to blast them (as shrapnel) into that culture's newer, fascistic organization to foment revolution.45Sprawl is, by contrast, a bleak work. Indeed, Fitterman himself has written a piece reflecting on the project as an ethical failure because of its potential condescension towards its source materials, a problem he considered several strategies for resolving but which in turn he didn't implement because they produced further problems compromising the project as a whole.46 I would argue that while Sprawl is a work of strategic medium translation, this re-presentation of readymade text uses the codex reframing as a means of critical suspension—or better put, as a means of sublation, of simultaneous preservation and cancelation. As Benjamin writes of citation: "In the quotation that both saves and punishes, language proves the matrix of justice. It summons the word by its name, wrenches it destructively from its context, but precisely calls it back to its origin."47 Here we might focus on the poem "Directory": almost radiantly negative, it is an inert verbatim citation of the complete unauthored mall directory, not omitting the dead column of the chain stores' grid assignments:
Street Level
J. CrewN101
Payless ShoeSourceR114
Kate SpadeE112
H & ME116 (15)
Suspending its given, transitive and pragmatic function to allow for a reflexive, critical stance, "Directory" brings the mall directory into view as a triumphal mapping of and locating tool within a site that is a globally inflected and overwritten non-site. "Directory" opens the open-secret of the map as an info-mechanism of the abstract time-space peculiar to the amnesiac presentism of an obsessively consumerist culture under new media capitalism, a minor yet also representative genre within a systematic apparatus for deracinating and delocalizing social relations and social place. Indeed, this piece is preceded in the book by a citation of the mall's promotional materials entitled: "Welcome to Indian Mound Mall," which begins: "When you come to Indian Mound Mall, you've come to history!" (13). Pointedly, Fitterman's mode of citationality does not excavate the site but echoes the mall's own history-annihilating gesture in, as Edmund Hardy formulates regarding the Conceptual readymade, "a needful faux originary archaeology or prehistory of the present moment's spectral afterlife" ("Nothing"). The mall directory readymade further functions as a synecdoche for and mini-treatise on how we find things now—the URL and GPS—on space as exhaustively abstracted, contemporaneous, transparent, searchable, controlled, totalized, and systematized.
"Directory" has had at least two other published incarnations, one in the section of the July 2009 issue of Poetry devoted to Conceptual writing and one, identikit, in the Poetry Foundation's database of poets and their representative poems. Both differ strikingly from the version found in Sprawl. Here the collection of brand and meta-brand signifiers has been reduced to a sub-set of franchises, names shuffled and repeated a few times:
  • Hickory Farms
  • GNC
  • The Body Shop
  • Eddie Bauer
  • Payless ShoeSource
  • Circuit City
  • Kay Jewelers
  • Gymboree
  • The Body Shop
  • Hickory Farms
  • Coach
  • Macy's
  • GNC
  • Circuit City
  • Sears
The poem stages not only the Minimalist installation aesthetic of the serial rearrangement of units whose production was outsourced to industrial manufacturers, but also Pop Art's (and Conceptual art's) deconstruction of this aesthetic, which borrowed its logic of arrangement only to turn from phenomenologically engaging the viewer's relation to object and space to semiotically engaging the viewer's relation to commodities and mass media. Stan Apps has observed regarding this version of the poem, "Consumerist language is constantly replaced, ever-fresh, and thereby enacts a perpetual present that is more imaginatively powerful than the continuous past evoked by traditional poetry. . . . Of course, the names are beautiful. Using unadulterated direct observation, Fitterman makes available to us the linguistic beauty that is the backbone and deep structure of the consumerist environment." Vanessa Place has stated, "The lyric tells you now to think about then now, the now coming after the then; the conceptual is you now, thinking you now" ("Nothing"). To the contrary, lyric might itself be characterized as a technology for triggering "a perpetual present." "Directory" might then be thought of as a deconstructive lyricism that, while it forces its reader to reflect on the present moment of reading, also estranges and arrests history-scrubbing consumerist language practices motored by immediate obsolescence. If Fitterman's repetition of store names draws them into patterns of rhythm and rhyme, this is hardly to point to their innate, seductive beauty. Rather than aestheticizing these names and remaking them into properly sweetened poetic materials, the poem suggests that the contact between such prosodic modes and the materiality of language is deadeningly mediated by the phantasmatic culture of conspicuous consumption. It reflects on what it posits as an epochal change in the possibility of poetry, not a harnessing of readymade effluvia for beauty.
Fitterman's works constitute an anti-nostalgic and timely re-iteration of appropriation strategies and engagement in modes of radical mimesis that critically examine capitalism under digital culture, mounting an agenda of changing the distribution of the sensible not by making the invisible visible but by proposing counter-reading to ambient distraction and ever-more insidious textual instrumentalities in a culture saturated with marketing and deluged by information. In looking to the uncompleted past of postmodern appropriation art in relation to the institution of poetry, in foregrounding the referential function of his citations and the historicity of his tactics, in refusing to provide directly affective platforms for his audience in very contemporary nexuses of interactive consumption, Fitterman's methods involve creating a political non-synchronicity based on underscoring "a contradictory coexistence of modes in any one cultural present."48 Their often unmitigated negativity makes them particularly recalcitrant to recuperation, if not to reading.
Judith Goldman  Judith Goldman is the author of Vocoder (Roof 2001), DeathStar/rico-chet (O Books 2006), and l.b.; or, catenaries (Krupskaya 2011). She co-edited the annual journal War and Peace with Leslie Scalapino from 2005-2009 and is currently Poetry Feature Editor for Postmodern Culture. She was the Holloway Poet at University of California, Berkeley in Fall 2011; in Fall 2012, she joins the faculty of the Poetics Program at the University at Buffalo.


1. "Non-retinal literature" is a term coined by Bill Freind in "In the Conceptual Vacuum: on Kenneth Goldsmith's Kent Johnson's Day;" he adapts the term from Marcel Duchamp's well known phrase "non-retinal art."
2. Goldsmith, "It's Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It's 'Repurposing.'" The Chronicle Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 11, 2011.
3. Goldsmith in conversation with Katherine Elaine Saunders, "So What Exactly Is Conceptual Writing?: An Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith."
4. The passage occurs right at the beginning of his introduction to the anthology.
5. This theme is reprised at the end of Dworkin's "The Fate of Echo," his introductory essay to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, xliii.
6. See Christian Bök, "Two Dots over a Vowel," for an instance of cataloguing these methods. See also the organization of I'll Drown My Book, where the larger rubrics are "Process," "Structure," "Matter," and "Event."
7. See Dworkin's discussion of Bök's project in "The Imaginary Solution" 52-3.
8. In the interest of full disclosure, the present author is included in both of these anthologies.
9. See, for instance, Steve McCaffery's "Diminished Reference and the Model Reader." Significantly, McCaffery also critiques Language writing's conscription of the reader to the production of meaning. Another classic essay on this topic is Ron Silliman's "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World." Again, Dworkin's "Fate of Echo," when it comes to theorizing "uncreative writing," discusses it precisely in terms of diminished reference, largely as theorized by Language writers (but without mention of them) (xliii).
10. For an interesting discussion of the role of fragmentation in Language poetry, see Michael Clune, "The Poem at the End of Theory." Clune argues that disjunctive Language poetry sets itself up as exemplifying poststructuralist theory and thus as in need of that complementary discourse.
11. See "Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith: Nude Media, Or Benjamin in the Age of Ubiquitous Connectivity" available online at the Electronic Poetry Center at Buffalo website.
12. See McCaffery, "Language Writing: from Productive to Libidinal Economy." For a discussion of figural uses of illegibility or unreadability, see Dworkin, Reading the Illegible xxii.
13. See Kenneth Goldsmith's post from April 2011 on Harriet, the Poetry Foundation's news and community website, "Rewriting Walter Benjamin's 'The Arcades Project,'" April 30, 2011.
14. In an earlier essay, "The Imaginary Solution," Dworkin takes up a number of works in print and new media to delineate a contemporary avant-garde genre that involves "the sorting and sifting of databases of found material rearticulated and organized into largely arbitrary and comprehensive systems" (47). Here he elucidates context more thoroughly.
15. Jacques Derrida, "Signature Event Context" 320. Derrida himself asks, "Is there a rigorous and scientific concept of the context?" (310). In an interesting causal reversal, Derrida suggests that citations themselves generate new contexts, rather than that a new context gives a citation a new meaning: "Every sign . . . as a small or large unity, can be cited . . . thereby it can break with every given context, and engender infinitely new contexts in an absolutely nonsaturable fashion" (320). In "A 'No Man's Land'": Postmodern Citationality in Zukofsky's 'Poem beginning 'The,'" Ming-Qian Ma theorizes Zukofsky's dissolution of the text-context binary along Derridean lines, asserting that, "Zukofsky's poem is one in which the established text-context dichotomy collapses and the conventional function of context is subverted" (55). Ma argues further that Zukofsky's poem effaces itself as a controlling context for its citations and instead features them as utterly essentialized, rather than socially or culturally representative, or even representative of their original sources (57-8). In other words, the poem is made solely of citations (and an index of references) yet forms exactly the opposite of what Barthes calls "a tissue of quotations" in that the poem refuses to be networked. As such the quotes become material texture, "out of which one composes one's own songs" (59). As I will argue below, Conceptual writing gets some traction out of a sense of "context."
16. The essay tends to focus on reframing as intra-(para)textual re-presentation: "A work can never really be duplicated by formal facsimile" (xxxvii). "[I]dentical procedures rarely produce identical results. Indeed, impersonal procedures tend to magnify subjective choices (to keep with the example of the newspaper, how would different transcribers handle line breaks and page divisions, layouts and fonts, and so on?)" (xxxviii-xxxix).
17. Jason Christie's "Sampling the Culture," an essay on Goldsmith's Day, defines an appropriative practice of "plundergraphia" as a reframing or recontextualization without a supplementation of the cited text itself, yet bot h contextual change and textual identity are defined tautologically: "Plundergraphia is a more general praxis that situates words in a new context where they are changed by their trans-formation into an entirely different context than that of their original one . . . the work . . . has to be retained in its entirety without anything else being added to it" (78).
18. An appropriative though not a Conceptual work, Tan Lin's Heath and the essays surrounding it deal more directly with these issues.
19. As Perloff writes in Radical Artifice, "Whereas in, say, the Pisan Cantos, individual items (a citation from a letter, an historical narrative, a Latin quotation, a bit of Poundian slang, retain their identity . . . in Bernstein's poem ["Safe Methods of Business"], the pieces of the puzzle are always already contaminated, bearing . . . traces of . . . media discourses (legalese, Wall Street-speak, National Enquirer gossip, and so on)" (197).
20. See Andrews's "Text & Context" and "Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis" in Paradise and Method. Notably, "Text & Context" also hardly discusses context.
21. See especially Leonard Diepveen's ideas on texture and citation in Language writing in Changing Voices 159-166.
22. In "George Oppen and the Poetics of Quotation," Peter Nicholls discusses Language poets' engagement both consciously and unconsciously with corrupting specific references, which could also demonstrate writing as a process of reading and memory inherently prone to eroding and changing original materials or as a way of activating subjunctive histories and cracks in texts that might otherwise seem monological and monolithic.
23. Barrett Watten's quite dismissive analysis of Notes on Conceptualisms in "Presentism and Periodization in Language Writing, Conceptual Art, and Conceptual Writing" is entirely based on this one sentence at the very beginning of that work: "Allegorical writing is a writing of its time, saying slant what cannot be said directly, usually because of repressive political regimes or the sacred nature of the message" (13; quoted in Watten 141). For Watten, this definition of "allegory" fails at the task of periodization in which it seems to engage: grounding allegorical technique in a specific historical moment. Thus, the term "allegory," as Watten deflatingly reads it, must refer to "the expansion of meaning by the historical ungrounding of formal means" (142). Conceptual writing thus comes into view as naïve and removed from meaningful historical engagement, in the Adornian dialectical materialist sense. Watten ends his article by noting that his interest in Conceptual writing stems from its "reinterpretation and redeployment of the many available and viable procedures in the historical present in which conceptual artists, Language writers, and conceptual writers (plus post-avant and Flarf) are working" (153). Of course, this knowing redeployment of technique is often precisely what is at stake in Conceptual Writing, as I will discuss further below. As is evident in the very name of the school, Conceptual writing's claims to "newness" and to an avant-gardist "radical break" with historical antecedents is almost always coupled with a self-conscious turn to predecessors - just not the immediate predecessor of the Language School (this disavowal of the immediate predecessor a classic gesture). Watten's leveling of the quite varied movements he lists seems to mark an investment in portraying the Language School as the last viable avant-garde, rather than to engage in the more considered interpretation he is known for. Further, while Watten accuses Goldsmith in particular of using an invalid "technological determinism" as grounding the "newness" of Conceptual Writing, this leaves Watten himself without a means of analyzing how the strategic redeployment of techniques does meaningfully embody historical change (and to a certain extent, a critical purchase on that change) precisely in terms of its interaction with and commentary on the contemporary immersive digital media environment.
24. "Allegory occurs whenever one text is doubled by another," Craig Owen writes in "The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism." Yet the semiotic violence of postmodern allegory, as Owen sees it, is that the double maximizes the potential in the allegorical operation not to redeem or establish a relation with a (lost) past, but to usurp it: "[the allegorist] does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured . . . Rather, he adds another meaning . . . only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one" (Part 1: 69). Allegory in Owen's discussion also morphs into "emptying out," as well as into rendering "opaque," "illegible," and, most importantly, undecidable (pace Paul de Man): through suggesting "mutually incompatible readings" (Part II: 61), "postmodernism . . . works to problematize the activity of reference" (Part 2: 80).
25. Goldsmith, for instance, adapts LeWitt in his brief statement, "Conceptual Poetics": "Conceptual writing is more interested in a thinkership rather than a readership. Readability is the last thing on this poetry's mind. Conceptual writing is good only when the idea is good; often, the idea is much more interesting than the resultant texts."
26. See especially Liz Kotz's discussion of Lawrence Weiner towards the end of Words To Be Looked At and Dworkin's "Imaginary Solutions" (as well as his comments in his introduction to Against Expression, noted above). Dworkin writes of Goldsmith in "Zero Kerning": "Consistently branded, his books come so neatly packaged in single-sentence summations that they seem to render any actual reading redundant, or unnecessary . . . Measured against the specifics of the particular texts, such tag-lines are of course to some extent inaccurate, and one should always remember Benjamin's warning: 'Never trust what writers say about their own writing.' Indeed, part of the interest of Goldsmith's projects lies precisely in [how] they deviate from the tidiness of their clear protective wrappers" (10). Katie Price's recent talk, "Content is (Never) More than an Extension of Form: Craig Dworkin's Parse and the Legacy of Conceptual Art," offers a sharp take on the Conceptual, procedural work Parse, which parses Edwin A. Abbott's How to Parse (1874) according to Abbott's own system of grammatical analysis. As she states: "With Parse, the material object is not to be bypassed on its way to some 'more important' thought; the act of reading itself—as opposed to the ideas of the project alone—becomes vital." She goes on to show how Parse reveals parsing to be a (variable) art rather than a science, bringing into focus the violence (and pleasures) of parsing, as well as diagnosing Abbott's "grammar biases." Most helpfully, Price notes: "The idea may be the machine that makes the art, but once that art is made, it can never again be reduced to just an idea."
27. On the materiality of language in conceptual art, see Anne Rorimer's entry on Joseph Kosuth in Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, Liz Kotz's Words to Be Looked At, and Joanna Burton's catalog essay for a recent Mel Bochner retrospective. Burton writes, for instance, "Language . . . will be seen in Bochner's work as the connective glue between otherwise seeming incongruent terms, such as conceptual/material, reductive/additive, internal/external, subject/object, and background/foreground" (14).
28. Perloff makes these arguments in chapters on Duchamp in Radical Artifice and 21st Century Modernism.
29. Compare also Charles Bernstein's characterization of Language poetry in "Writing and Method": "Writing as a map for the reader to read into, to interpolate from the space of the page out onto a projected field of 'thinking' . . . . So that the meaning of this text is constituted only in collaboration with the reader's active construction of this hypertext" (234-5).
30. Place makes this remark in conversation with Edmund Hardy, towards the beginning of "'Nothing that's quite your own': Vanessa Place interviewed."
31. A video of this work may be accessed on the Poetry Foundation website at
32. Jason Christie offers an excellent description of Day's provocations along these lines, but winds up suggesting the book form of the work should not be read: "The idea of transporting a quotidian and time-sensitive object such as the newspaper into a posterity-ridden space like that of the book challenges our sense of utility. Words are meant to be read. Words don't have expiration dates. So, a newspaper that is two days old is already redundant by the simple fact of the two intervening days' issues of the newspaper that are each supposedly up-to-date up to their respective dates of issue. Books are meant to blanket the social aporia generated by newspapers' attempt at total coverage and provide a retrospective, albeit revisionist picture of a given historical moment. Books are meant to be read at any time, irrespective of 'when' they are written or published. But the deceptively honest question remains: how fruitful is it to read a newspaper as a book when it is continuously more and more out-of-date? Should such a book be read at all? I realize to some people it is almost sacrilegious to suggest that a book should not be read, that a book's function is other than to be read, but the question nonetheless remains" (81-2).
33. See, for instance, Miwon Kwon, "Exchange Rate: On Obligation and Reciprocity in Some Art of the 1960s and After," as well as Molesworth, "Work Avoidance," and "Work Ethic," where she writes: "In recent years, there has been a return to artistic strategies of the 1960s . . . . [O]ne reason for this revived interest is that the early twenty-first century has also been marked by radical transformations of the global labor force. As commodities are now almost exclusively produced in developing and non-Western nations, the labor of developed nations has increasingly become the management of information and the production of experience. Experiments in Conceptual and Performance art of the 1960s seem particularly germane in this context and may even offer strategies for understanding, coping with, and resisting these recent developments in our ever more globalized economy" (19).
34. See Steve McCaffery's Bataille-based, anti-productivist model of textuality in "Writing as General Economy" and "Language Writing: from Productive to Libidinal Economy."
35. Owens's position overlaps with my note about Sol LeWitt above.
36. Indeed, in "Immaterial Labour," Lazzarato specifically considers "immaterial labor" as a "transformation of working-class labor."
37. See Benjamin Buchloh, "Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions." Dworkin notes that Goldsmith "appropriates the tactic of appropriation" from Appropriation art in "Fate of Echo" xli.
38. See the "Introduction" to Bourriard's Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World.
39. For a discussion of artists under the rubric of service workers, see Andrea Fraser, "What's Intangible, Transitory, Mediating, Participatory, and Rendered in the Public Sphere?"
40. For a preliminary discussion of "affective labor," see Michael Hardt, "Affective Labor." It should be noted that Fitterman's post-9/11 work "This Window Makes Me Feel" and his recent book Holocaust Museum explore quite different but highly affectively charged materials and are themselves quite affecting. His deadpan appropriative treatment drastically counteracts or pierces through the publicly regulated feeling surrounding these materials, while it also suspends sentimentality not merely to ironize it but to complicate it and hold it up for inspection. My thanks to Rodney Koeneke for discussion of this point.
41. The readymade as (re-)framing mechanism is salient to Rancière's concept of the "regime of the aesthetic" in The Politics of Aesthetics, particularly the section "The Distribution of the Sensible," and in Aesthetics and Its Discontents, the sections "Lyotard and the Aesthetics of the Sublime: a Counter-reading of Kant" and "The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics." The "aesthetic regime" is a modality of art as a posited, autonomous zone, a politicized, contemplative common space or heterotopia for exercising disinterested, dis-alienated relationality to the objects there annexed, working towards a re-distribution of the sensible.
42. My insights coincide with those offered by Thom Donovan in his review of Fitterman and Place's Notes on Conceptualisms.
43. See, for instance, Slavoj Žižek's discussion of this kernel in the first chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology.
44. As Jean Baudrillard described in his eerily proleptic The Ecstasy of Communication: "Consumer society lived also under the sign of alienation, as a society of the spectacle" (150). But something has changed: "In place of the reflexive transcendence of mirror and scene [of the spectacle], there is a nonreflecting surface . . . where . . . the smooth operation surface of communication [unfold] . . . the . . . period of production and consumption gives way to the 'proteinic' era of networks, to the narcissistic and protean era of connections, contact, contiguity, feedback and generalized interface that goes with the universe of communication" (146).
45. See James L. Rolleston, "The Politics of Quotation: Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project."
46. See Fitterman, "Failure: A Postconceptual Poem."
47. From Walter Benjamin, "Karl Krauss," cited in Perloff, Unoriginal Genius 4.
48. Both phrases are from Hal Foster, "Readings in Cultural Resistance" 178.

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Price, Katie. "Content is (Never) More than an Extension of Form: Craig Dworkin's Parse and the Legacy of Conceptual Art." Modernist Studies Association Conference. Buffalo, NY. 9 Oct. 2011. Talk.
Rancière, Jacques. Aesthetics and Its Discontents. Trans. Steven Corcoran. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009. Print.
———. The Politics of Aesthetics. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Continuum, 2004. Print.
Rolleston, James L. "The Politics of Quotation: Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project." PMLA 104.1(1989): 13-27. Print.
Rorimer, Anne. "Joseph Kosuth." Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975. Eds. Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995. 150-154. Print.
Schmidt, Christopher. "The Waste Management Poetics of Kenneth Goldsmith." SubStance 37.2 (2008): 25-40. Print.
Shaw, Lytle. "Docents of Discourse: The Logic of Dispersed Sites." boundary 2 36.3 (2009): 25-48. Print.
Silliman, Ron. "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World." The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Eds. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984. 121-132. Print.
Smithson, Robert. "Language to be Looked at and/or Things to be Read" (1967). Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. Ed. Jack Flam. Berkeley: U of California P, 1996. 61. Print.
Spahr, Juliana. Everybody's Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2001. Print.
Stephens, Paul. "Self-Portrait in a Context Mirror: Pain and Quotation in the Conceptual Writing of Craig Dworkin." Postmodern Culture 19.3(2009). Web. 22 Feb. 2012.
Tabbi, Joseph. "The Technology of Quotation: William Gaddis's J R and Contemporary Media." Mosaic 28.4 (1995): 143-164. Print.
Watten, Barrett. "Presentism and Periodization in Language Writing, Conceptual Art, an d Conceptual Writing." Journal of Narrative Theory 41.1(2011): 125-161. Print.
Wershler-Henry, Darren. "Uncreative is the New Creative: Kenneth Goldsmith Not Typing." Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics. Spec. issue of Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory 12.7(2005): 161-169. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989. Print.

Conceptual Literature in the Wild
By Christian Bök

Darren Wershler has coined the phrase “conceptualism in the wild” to describe writing that has arisen totally outside the purview of poetics, but that has nevertheless seemed absurdly familiar to practitioners of Conceptual Literature, because (without intending to do so) such writing appears to exploit the same kind of uncreative techniques, normally deployed by the avant-garde for the literary purposes of poetry. Such “conceptualism in the wild” does not originate from the institutions of literature, nor does it get validated by the practitioners of literature; instead, such writing points to a parapoetic phenomenon at the crux of meaning itself, showcasing the degree to which language finds its own aesthetic potential through disparate slippages of context, all the while evading any consolidated recuperation by the avant-garde.

Conceptual Literature has certainly redefined what might count as poetry, showing the degree to which banal texts (like weather reports and traffic reports) might exemplify an artistic category of speech, otherwise ignored by poets, who claim to write in the everyday language of the modern milieu. While Conceptual Literature might disrupt the values of our current poetics, the idea of “conceptualism in the wild” showcases the uncanny ability of language to exceed its apparent, intended function, through acts of both reiteration and circulation, shifting to fit the next role. While Kenneth Goldsmith might take pride in having appropriated “uncreative” textuality for literary purposes, “conceptualism in the wild” seems to have preemptively appropriated such artistry from us all, avant la lettre.

Although numerous examples of such writing abound online—I am going to point to only a limited handful of minor cases (all of which have instilled in me a sense of recognition—but to which I have attached little signficance). I might point to these examples as being small sites of inspiration for my own “concept” of writing (but, of course, there are many more to mention—and among my friends in the movement, these six cases probably play just a tiny role in most of our thinking on the subject). I have almost certainly directed readers to these sites through my feed on Twitter (@christianbok), and I make no claims for the aesthetic coherence of the set, except to consider them touchstones, when thinking about literature at the utmost limits of automation, of encryption, of constraint, and of plagiarism:

1. The Los Angeles Times has preserved an unusual webpage since May 26, 2009—a page that is probably just a template, accidentally posted to the site by an unsuspecting editor. I think that the page is interesting, not because of its self-conscious, self-reflexive placeholders (whose techniques are already a cliché of Conceptual Literature), but because visitors can still post comments in the, mostly unused, window (opening up many possibilities for poetic action in response to this literary graffiti, still lingering in the backwater of the newspaper).
2. Nanex is a company that monitors robotic trading of stocks, in which algorithms flood the various indexes with thousands of transactions per millisecond, only to vanish—(and hence, some analysts express concern about these bots interfering with the marketplace). Each “flash crash” caused by such a device creates a unique, visual poem, whose robotic writing notates the fibrillations in value. More than 50% of Internet activity is now nonhuman (implying, perhaps, that robots have already started to outpace our own digitized exchanges of text).
3. Books2Barcodes converts pages from great works of literature into QR codes, readable by robotic devices—and among these acts of impractical translation, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells is my favourite. The text is rendered illegible to anyone without access to camera-vision, and thus the book is reduced to a unique, visual poem—a screen of static, whose message is lost in a spectrum of televised emissions. The service implies that we are halfway to a future, where we might be reading such poems, written by machines for machines.
4. 419 Eater is a site that plays pranks on Nigerian scammers, who try to perpetrate frauds upon Arthur Dent via email. Dent responds to his spam by inviting the fraudster to participate in an advanced, research project on handwriting recognition—a job that pays $100 per page, if the conman is willing to transcribe, in longhand, all 293 pages from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The guy recopies the entire volume, now posted online (thus restaging the kind of mindless, monastic transcription, typically performed by Kenneth Goldsmith).
5. An Asperger Dictionary of Everyday Expressions explains an array of disparate metaphors to a readership, frequently challenged by the act of making distinctions between literal speech and figural motifs—hence, this dictionary provides a service to people, who might find poetry (if not everyday language) too ambiguous to apprehend without rigorous guidance. Each entry converts a figurative expression into an impassive discourse (thus providing a kind of metaphor for the compulsive, if not affectless, strategies of Conceptual Literature itself).
6. Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry is the kind of book that the poet Darren Wershler might have written in grim jest, so as to comment upon the oppressive conditions of copyright in the modern milieu. (The title alone is great.) The fact that poets must now formalize their own standards for the usage of quotation suggests that, although nobody might care about poetry, the threat of anyone caring about it does give us all cause to be fearful about the consequences of actually using the most innovative techniques for generating poetry.

Kenneth Goldsmith has often joked that he is lucky that nobody cares about poetry, because an important, scholarly resource like UbuWeb might not exist, without the goodwill of the literati, who tolerate his piracies. The “wildness” of poetry arises, perhaps, from such a willingness to court catastrophe through a kind of linguistic experiment, conducted on behalf of art itself, within a community of peers. My six examples of “conceptualism in the wild” imply that, while we might be plagiarizing texts, automating them or encrypting them through procedural discipline, such techniques merely constitute the background radiation for larger trends in the digital culture itself.
Notes on Conceptualisms appears an unimposing project. The slender sky-blue book, collaboratively written by Vanessa Place & Rob Fitterman & published by Ugly Duckling Presse, slips easily into one’s rear pocket, which dooms it into carrying the subtle inverse impression of one’s own backside. But it’s a book you’re going to want to carry around with you as you go about your daily business, being the most ambitious & serious account of the dynamics underlying emergent poetics in the United States I’ve encountered in years. In this sense, the little volume makes a big noise – it wants to stand on its own alongside Spring & All, Call Me Ishmael & more than a few volumes by my own age cohort. Specifically, it wants to place conceptual writing – including flarf & more than a few kinds of appropriative techniques – into a historical context that renders all that has come before obsolete & irrelevant. It may have cordial relations with other avant & post-avant projects over the past 50 years, but conceptualism (so framed, at least) also wants to consign them to the dustheap of history. It’s a vantage point from which I find myself being positioned alongside Auggie Kleinzahler, Dana Gioia & Charlie Simic, just one more example of the past. I would anticipate, therefore, that my reaction(s) here ought to be viewed with some caution.
Notes on Conceptualism’s principle assertion is quite simple & stated in the first sentence of the book’s title essay, the only part of this project actually produced jointly by Place & Fitterman:
1.     Conceptual writing is allegorical writing.
The use of numbering here is interesting. Following the general schema of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, with its presumptuous attempt to capture all-that-is-the-case into a set of seven numbered sentences, augmented with a structured (and numbered) series of comments & comments upon comments, Place & Fitterman’s argument proceeds 1 through 13, with the notable difference that the Ur-set of master sentences is incomplete. There is no number 3, for example, although we do find 3a & 3b. Later, we don’t get even this much, going straight down to 9a1, 9a2 & 9a3, leaving a careful (if not, by then, overtly cautious) reader to wonder not only the “nature” of 9a but of 9 itself, which may or may not have to do with the tensions between fidelity & community.¹
The antithesis of allegory here would appear to be mastery. All of the debates betwixt the “mainstream” & its antagonists, between the School of Quietude & post-avant writing, can be (and are, here at least) reduced to a quarrel over the question of what is masterful writing. But mastery, Place & Fitterman want to argue, is not the question, it is the problem. Old, patriarchal bad bad mastery. Thus:
Failure is the goal of conceptual writing.
This is a more important point than it might seem, tucked as it is (a paragraph all its own) toward the end of 3b. It is, for example, the link that joins a project like Kenny Goldsmith’s scanning in of The New York Times for September 1, 2000 to create the 836-page edifice that is Day & the origins of flarf in a spoof response to a writing contest scam by sending in only the worst poems imaginable, which were of course accepted into the resultant “prize anthology,” available to contributors at considerable cost. Both projects – Conceptualisms poses it as a scale, upper limit allegory (Goldsmith), lower limit baroque (flarf) – are predicated on unreadability as a new index of opacity in the work of art.
In this sense, conceptual writing supplants the rejection of closure – a common post-avant value – with the rejection of mastery. The ability to accept or reject (or opt for any compromise in between) closure is itself always already a claim on mastery. And thereby a claim on all the institutional paradigms that underscore it. Unreadability extracts opacity from the materiality of the word (where it has resided since the High Modernists) & focuses it instead upon or within the social context in which language occurs. What is interesting about appropriated language, the argument would seem to be, is not what is being said, but rather the ways in which we, the Reader, bounce off its impenetrable surfaces:
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 idea of the work. In this sense, pure conceptualism’s readymade properties capitulate to and mirror the easy consumption/generation of text and the devaluation of reading in the larger culture. Impure conceptualism, manifest in the extreme by the baroque, exaggerates reading in the traditional textual sense. In this sense, its excessive textual properties refuse, and are defeated by, the easy consumption/generation of text and the rejection of reading in the larger culture.
This may sound like checkmate to anyone still practicing in pre-conceptual terms – we’re all consigned to the purgatory of the “adorable detail,” whether that is the image of the poet looking up from the kitchen sink or rose bed in the garden to have a quiet (but meaningful) epiphany, or a devastating linebreak or enjambment (there are many roads to mastery & all of them, it says here, basically are corrupt). But I’m not so certain – and Place & Fitterman aren’t quite as dogmatic as I’m making them sound.
The first problem is theoretical. Some of what is intriguing about conceptual writing are the reversals it invokes with regards to the truisms of literature in general: boring is the new interesting &, conversely, interesting is the new boring. Setting conceptualism up as a spectrum, however, reveals exactly what doesn’t work with this binary model: far from surrounding pre-conceptual poetics, this approach attempts to come at it from all sides, like collies herding so many wayward sheep. The reality – an argument that my critics have been making with regards to my own use of the SoQ/post-avant divide² for some time – is much messier. This was precisely the point Holland Carter was making in last Friday New York Times, discussing the violence that that generational retrospectives do to the work of the period they purport to represent.
Jordan Davis, in his generally scathing look at Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, underscores the same point by looking at the earlier divide between modernism & its predecessors. Miller finds the “magic” in the work in C.S. Lewis precisely because, as a child, she identified powerfully with one of the Narnia characters, Lucy. This sort of immersion in the imaginary of another referential being is a hallmark of pre-modern literature, but it ruptured Wordsworth’s autobiographical narrator's attempts to cross the alps in The Prelude, confronting instead the presence of his own ever-active consciousness. The whole of modernism might be read as a shift first figured by that glance into the abyss of consciousness – from that moment forward one was not literate if one identified with a character. Literacy, as I learned as early as 9th or 10th grade, did not actually begin until one began instead to see not through the eyes of any single character, but following the author instead. One can see this acted out almost with a stations-of-the-cross methodicalness by James Joyce as he moves from the fussy realism of The Dubliners to the modular realism(s) of Ulysses, each chapter presenting the “tale” processed through a different filter, to the filter-centric Finnegans Wake, wherein the tale, to the degree that there is one, is something heard over & over in what feels like a distant background, echoing like thunder.
C.S. Lewis put that distinction a little historically later than I would, but he knew which side he fell on all the same. Davis writes:
One of Lewis's main critical points in The Discarded Image and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century is that the so-called Renaissance in English letters was not a return to classical models but a rejection of the considerable systematic achievement of the medieval thinkers. Where others saw the new emphasis on the originality of individual authors as a shift of Copernican proportions, Lewis saw it as a tragedy of the Commons, a privatizing of the shared inheritance. Miller gets it half right, praising Lewis's spirited syncretism, while mislabeling it "medievalist." It's true that Lewis and his Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien are mutually responsible for the armor-and-cleavage circuit of Renaissance Faires and Medieval Festivals, but Lewis never dreamed of returning to feudalism and poor sanitation. He did see a major shift, though; in his inaugural address at Cambridge he sees the great divide coming sometime between Jane Austen and ourselves.
It is not an accident that the first truly successful novel in the English language, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, unites narrator & character, attempting to submerge the author thereby. There is less than a 40 year gap between this new form’s absorption of pre-modern reading techniques and the first edition of Wordsworth’s poem. By the time we reach Whitman & Dickinson, the poem has already moved on, at least for some of its practitioners. But the dynamic is ineluctable & the novel is sucked along the same path some 150 years after Laurence Sterne.
The death of the author – a fatality acted out in critical theory more than in poetry – supposedly was yet another moment of such cleavages in the history of reading, writing & attention. Conceptual poetry both notices these recurring break points, not to mention the uglier reality that the earlier modes never actually go away – intellectually, the anti-modernists are still afraid to look down as they venture across that gap in the mountains³ – and tries to both replicate that moment yet again & step outside the paradigm at the same time. But it’s not possible to do both both simultaneously: “glorious failure,” Conceptualism’s antidote for the “adorable detail,” is in fact just another mode of detailing & glorious as a category is all about mastery.
The second problem is more prosaic: conceptualism is not new. It has existed as a category within the visual arts for over 40 years – Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object 1966-1972 – documents its heyday. Russian poets around Dimitry Prigov applied the term to writing at roughly the same time. Place & Fitterman are not unheedful of this history – they cite visual arts examples constantly:
The readymade emphasizes the subject nature of aesthetics by reducing art to pure object. The readymade is thus the most aestheticized object, existing only as art. The readymade is also the most subjectified ethic, entirely reliant on its communicative capacities, hovering as object in the midst of this transaction.
Simultaneously subject & object, the art thingee becomes what Place & Fitterman call a sobject. Ugly Duckling Presse will even sell you a t-shirt with this logo (fittingly perhaps, none come in my XXL size). The neologism stands for – tho I think Place & Fitterman would deny it – the transcendent Other that conceptualism must both announce its desire for & inevitably fall short of reaching:
when the word is the wound (the site of failure), there are two extreme forms of mimetic redress: isolate and seal the word/wound (pure conceptualism), or open and widen the word/wound (impure conceptualism and the baroque). The first is the response of the silenced sobject, the second, the screaming sobject.
Note: this is the difference between negative and positive space.
This moment occurs less than 2 very short pages from the end of the title collaboration & is immediately followed by the following allusion to the wordiest of the 1960s’ American conceptualists, Joseph Kosuth, who for awhile was associated with the British movement Art & Language:
12c. This kills Kosuth dead.
Rise Kosuth.
     * glorious failure!
The final section of the essay is a return full-circle to Wordsworth’s glimpse into the abyss of the alps:
13. Glorious failure because among the crises catalogued by/in conceptual writing is a crisis in interiority.
A crisis in interiority is a crisis of perspective. In jettisoning the normative (or the normative of the normative), we are left with the contingent or relative normative, which is no real normative at all, and worse still, recapitulates the same problems (by default and paying attention to something else) as the old normative normative. In other words, we reject the province of the monoptic (fixed) male subject heretofore a marker of success. This is the difference between Narcissus and Medusa. This is the difference between the barren and the baroque. This is the problem.
Note that the solution is not provided by the machine ex deus.
This brings us back to meaning, and the possibility of possibility.
This is allegorical.
This attempt to tie off the essay in a big bow is nothing if not masterful, which is of course precisely the problem. At the very least, it’s master-wishing.
Beyond this single essay, just over 60 percent of the book, the collaborative nature of Notes on Conceptualisms tends to break down. The introduction – which tries very hard to concede that it is not the end-all & be-all of conceptualism or conceptual poetics – is by Fitterman. Place adds an essay on narrative, image & reference, “Ventouses,” which defines reference as “a sequence of reference” (I much prefer the formulation: the unfolding of meaning in time). “Ventouses” – the term is the plural for a middle-English word for glass, i.e. the clear container of referential theory – actually has the best writing in the volume, perhaps simply because it isn’t the two authors bouncing back & forth off one another – but doesn’t say anything about reference that language poets haven’t been saying for 30 years. The final section is Fitterman’s Appendix, a short list of six different types of book-length examples:
Appropriation with Sampling
Without Appropriation
Constraint / Procedure
These lists are indeed short, with between four and eleven examples per category, for example, Constraint / Procedure in its entirety:
Bök, Christian. Eunoia
Brown (sic), Laynie. Daily Sonnets
Nufer, Doug. Never Again
Place, Vanessa. Dies: A Sentence
As the neo-Dada performance work Eunoia & Laynie Browne’s Daily Sonnets both should underscore, such constraint-based literature is as old as rhyme itself. Even Vanessa Place’s 50,000 word sentence, Dies, replicates a virtually identical project by Iven Lourie from the 1970s called, I  believe, Lip Service. Why the work of Jackson Mac Low, e.g., Stanzas for Iris Lezak, are not on this list is a question worth raising, even though Fitterman has warned us in the introduction there was no attempt at completeness. Ditto a more recent example of flarf: Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson. Is the appropriation of Emily D’s verse forms too “masterly” to qualify?
The ragged spots & gaps are as telling as the smooth surfaces & slick finishes elsewhere in this book. It may well be, for example, that conceptual poetics is not yet at the stage where it can understand itself as being (simply) the latest generation in a debate that has gone on now for at least a quarter of a century, and that there is more that joins these poets to their ancestors than, in fact, drives them apart. But I can promise them that this day of recognition is fast approaching & can be fended off only by denial & foolishness.
Still, that takes nothing from this little blue book. It is, as I said before, as ambitious an intellectual project with contemporary poetics as I’ve seen in some time. As such, its impact will be both profound & lasting. - Ron Silliman
¹ Does an artist “tell the truth” if that consigns her/him outside the circle of the accepted, the old politically correct/incorrect debate, may well be the rabbit (or rat) hole that Place & Fitterman have chosen not to take us down here.
² In truth, I haven’t done as well articulating the relationship between these two broad traditions as I might have. It has been much more of a dialog than an either/or, at least from the post-avant perspective (most post-avants have at least some background on the other side of the street, as do I), tho the precise nature of this dialog – “culture war” would be one extreme – continues to be debated on all sides.
³ Thus the institutional ferocity with which the SoQ attempts to hold onto its prizes, its MFA programs, its access to trade publishers & their distribution networks isn’t (only) about annihilating anything they don’t understand, so much as it may be fear simply of not understanding, of confronting a text & not knowing what (or how) to read. Anti-modern writing is always already pre-literate.
Notes on Conceptualisms by Vanessa Place & Robert Fitterman
Reviewed by Karla Kelsey
As Ron Silliman notes in his June 3rd 2009 blog post devoted to Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman's Notes on Conceptualisms, while this attractive, pocket-sized, sky blue book from Ugly Duckling Presse appears to be unimposing, it makes a big noise. The currency of the topic might account for some of the sound, but the intensity and quality of the blast directly results from the book's density of ambition and content. Packed into its 76 delicately set pages are four sections: Fitterman's Forward outlining the genesis of the project; the propositional collaboration between the two authors titled "Notes on Conceptualisms;" Place's theorization of the image named "Ventouses;" and an Appendix of further reading suggestions. I will focus this essay on the collaborative section, "Notes on Conceptualisms," which takes up the bulk of the book, and for which the volume is named.[i]
Readers familiar with the history of the term "conceptual writing" will hear the text more accurately than those new to the idea. The term "conceptual writing," as a classification, is a 21st century phenomenon. However, the driving notion—the creation of artwork wherein the "art" resides in the idea of the piece rather than in the art object that results from the execution of the idea—is not a new phenomenon. The labeling of such visual artwork as "conceptual" began with experimental visual art of the 1960s and 70s, carrying through to Neo-Conceptual work of the 80s and 90s.
In their volume, Place and Fitterman often refer to the artists and theorists of Conceptual Art, but they do not provide readers with an explicit history of the term "conceptual writing." Some readers may find this absence to be disappointing or even puzzling, given the fact that readers who have this history, and who can distinguish the source of certain lines of thought, will derive the most benefit from the volume. Readers aware of the history of the term will clearly see the places where Place and Fitterman join and depart from an already established context.
In addition, while the authors of "Notes" often reference the conceptual work of Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith (the writers who coined the movement and first began to theorize the term), the authors of "Notes" do not explicitly attribute particular ideas to Dworkin and Goldsmith even though much of "Notes" is deep in conversation with this source. However, there are many significant reasons Place and Fitterman may have decided to omit an explicit recounting of this history. For example, the currency of the subject may make a rehearsal of context irrelevant; the easy access readers have to Dworkin and Goldsmith's texts online would make the summarizing of their thoughts (at best) second rate; the desire to define conceptual writing otherwise than have Goldsmith and Dworkin may render address of their theories too consuming; the spare, propositional form and style of "Notes" may place such tracing of context outside of the project's scope.[ii] Although Place and Fitterman have chosen not to recount the history of the term I will do so—in brief—to set a context in which we can more clearly hear the work.
A Brief History of the Term
The term "conceptual writing" cribs its name from Conceptual Art and came into the lexicon in 2003 with the birth of the UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing edited and introduced by Craig Dworkin. In his tight, immaculate Introduction, Dworkin employs the term to designate what he sees as an already existing and currently proliferating tradition of "non-expressive poetry," which stands as an alternative to the tradition of expressive poetry handed down from Romanticism. Dworkin tells us that instead of seeking to express the "emotional truth of the self," conceptual writers manifest tensions between "materiality and concept" wherein "the idea is more important than anything else as a writing in which the idea cannot be separated from the writing itself: in which the instance of writing is inextricably intertwined with the idea of Writing: the material practice of écriture." The texts in the anthology consist of literary writing that would qualify as Conceptual Art or Conceptual Art that employs text as its major mode. The lion's share of the texts in the anthology are pre-21st century works from writers associated with movements such as OuLiPo, Fluxus, and Language Poetry, and from well-known Conceptual artists such as Joseph Kosuth, John Baldessari, and Robert Rauschenberg.
While Dworkin's UbuWeb anthology coins the category "conceptual writing," and delineates a lineage shared by visual, sound, and literary artists, Kenneth Goldsmith has been at the forefront of describing the conceptual writing movement as it has shaped itself in the 21st century. Goldsmith's writings on the topic not only make engaging reading material, but they have been prominently and accessibly displayed via his posts for the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog, thus introducing the movement to mainstream audiences. While I will treat you to sound bites of Goldmsith's ideas, you can find original posts here:
According to Goldsmith's "Conceptual Poetics 'Journal' Dispatch" for the Poetry Foundation dated January 26, 2007, this movement
obstinately makes no claims on originality. On the contrary, it employs intentionally self and ego effacing tactics using uncreativity, unoriginality, illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft, and falsification as its precepts; information management, word processing, databasing, and extreme process as its methodologies; and boredom, valuelessness, and nutritionlessness as its ethos. Language as material, language as process, language as something to be shoveled into a machine and spread across pages, only to be discarded and recycled once again. Language as junk, language as detritus. Nutritionless language, meaningless language, unloved language, entartete sprache, everyday speech, illegibility, unreadability, machinistic repetition. Obsessive archiving & cataloging, the debased language of media& advertising; language more concerned with quantity than quality.
Goldsmith's work provides excellent example of these uncreative tactics, and Place and Fitterman often cite one of his books, Day, to illustrate particular facets of conceptual writing. For example, in creating the 900-page Day, Goldsmith re-typed the September 1, 2000 copy of The New York Times. Such a project exemplifies tactics of uncreativity, unoriginality, appropriation, plagiarism, information management, and word processing, along with the ethos of boredom, valuelessness, and nutritionalessness. Goldsmith asserts that, as the art of Conceptual Art is in the idea, not in the manufacture and consumption of the art object, conceptual writing is writing that does not need to be read. Day provides an example of this because the interesting things to be thought and said about the project are predicated on the concept, not on the words of the book itself: we've already consumed those in newspaper form. Such works demand not readership, but "thinkership"—a term invented by David Antin and used by Dworkin, Goldsmith, Place, and Fitterman—all—to describe the type of response conceptual writing gears towards.[iii]
Notes on "Notes"
Given the landscapes surrounding conceptual writing—Dworkin's writing-as-art-art-as-writing and Goldsmith's language-as-junkpile—the austere literary-philosophico tone of "Notes on Conceptualisms" immediately indicates Place and Fitterman's fresh contribution to the subject. Their work adds yet another line to the conversation rather than simply entrenching what has already been said by others. Built in the style of Wittgenstein's propositional masterpiece, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, "Notes on Conceptualisms" manages to be both concise and airy.
Created of 12 propositions and their supporting elaborations, "Notes" results in a concision that demands serious attention. By employing the form of the direct statement, Place and Fitterman create an authoritative tone which charms and lulls the reader into head-nodding agreement with such assertions as such as proposition 1: "Conceptual writing is allegorical writing" (13) and statement 9a1: "There are two fundamental mimetic responses: fidelity and infidelity. Fidelity is an advantage of maturity, infidelity of immaturity. Fidelity is a problem of maturity, infidelity of immaturity" (41).[iv] Even after having read the work several times over, I found myself often nodding "yes" to statements that I didn't, in retrospect, know that I fully understood or necessarily agreed with. Such is the power of propositional statement and logical tone.
At the same time, Place and Fitterman imbue the volume with a remarkable airiness that requires readers to question and undercut their own impulse towards blind agreement—and in this tension the genius of the project resides. For example, while the direct statement form of 9a1 wears the hat of authority, the second and third sentences of the proposition create a near contradiction. These sentences (again) read: "Fidelity is an advantage of maturity, infidelity of immaturity. Fidelity is a problem of maturity, infidelity of immaturity." Each trait (fidelity or infidelity in representation) is seen to be both an "advantage of" AND a "problem of" their respective relationships to maturity and immaturity. As we do not usually consider advantageous things to be "problems," this notion of problematic advantage, or the advantage that is also a problem, becomes a mental tongue twister, dislodging the fixity implied by the proposition's logical, straightforward tone. Such moments of displacement are common in "Notes on Conceptualisms" and playfully (in the most serious of fashions) kick the reader out of head-nodding acquiescence and into a mode of thought geared towards teasing out multiple meanings.[v]
As with all well-crafted works, this stylistic tension does not only reside on the surface of the text, but indicates a fundamental tension within the project as a whole: on all levels "Notes on Conceptualisms" works towards the opposite impulses of definition and inclusion. As such, the stylistic impulse towards direct, concise proposition furthers the definitional aspect of the project. At the very same time, the underlying impulse to pry open definition in service of inclusion supports the airy, stylistic drive towards playful dislodgement and polyphonic meaning. It is this intentional, oppositional movement towards definition and inclusion that I want to focus on now, because it is one of the most individuating elements of the book, and because it is the element underlying much that promises to bother readers.
From the very first proposition of the work the tension between definition and inclusion rises to the forefront of the project. Proposition 1, "Conceptual writing is allegorical writing," bears great significance because it not only constitutes the first statement of the book, but it is primary in that it sets the stage for the entire book: all of the essay's subsequent propositions can be traced back to a relation to allegory. Obviously, the construction of this statement is definitional: "x is y" is the most basic form of definition possible. And, in many ways, this definitional action, like all definitional action, excludes. The statement means that conceptual writing is not (for example) symbolic writing, it is not purely imageless writing, and it is not writing situated in a particular genre. However, at the same time, rather than constricting the field of conceptual writing, the work that Place and Fitterman do with the notion of conceptual-writing-as-allegory creates a classification that operates expansively in two fundamental ways.
The First Fundamental Expansion:
As Angus Fletcher, author of Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, observes, the notion of "allegory" is, itself, protean and expansive, shifting in definition and employment throughout literary history. Allegory employs many means to its ends of saying one thing while meaning another and "destroys the normal expectation we have about language, that our words 'mean what they say'" (Fletcher 2). In addition, allegory operates as both a mode of reading and a mode of writing. Allegory itself is of a definition that one is better off tracing rather than pinning down: allegory has many possible ways to mean.
Place and Fitterman acknowledge the protean nature of the mode in statement 1a: "The standard features of allegory include extended metaphor, personification, parallel meanings, and narrative. Simple allegories use simple parallelisms, complex ones more profound. Other meanings exist in the allegorical 'pre-text,' the cultural conditions within which the allegory is created. Allegorical writing is a writing of its time, saying slant what cannot be said directly, usually because of overtly repressive political regimes or the sacred nature of the message. In this sense, the allegory is dependent on its reader for completion (though it usually has a transparent or literal surface)" (13).
The authors render this dense list of feature and function useful by employing it to suggest the many ways conceptual writing comes to mean. This is important, for it is easy to say that the meaning of conceptual work resides in its idea, rather than in its object, but difficult to do the thinkership that begins to piece together how so, and why, and so what does it matter that this happens. Place and Fitterman show us that the notion of allegory can help us towards such thinkership, and the bulk of "Notes" reads as a guide to using allegory as a vehicle for thinking through constellations of meaning. In this way the book addresses the way that conceptual writing comes to mean in its relationship to elements such as narrative, the written object, the body, feminism, completeness, context, and representation.
It is important to note that Place and Fitterman's method of guiding is, itself, open and inclusive. While they are concise in saying particular things about (for example) the constellation of conceptual writing, allegory, and narrative, they work hard to keep the nature of the relationship between these elements flexible, open, and plural. For example, proposition 2 addresses the ways in which conceptual writing, as allegory, means through narrative. Place and Fitterman write: "Note that pre-textual associations assume post-textual understandings. Note that narrative may mean a story told by the allegorical writing itself, or a story told pre-or post-textually, about the writing itself or writing itself" (15).
This statement manages to be both particular and expansive because, while asserting that narrative takes place in all allegorical writing (a particular claim), the statement asserts that there are many locations narrative can inhabit. Narrative may be what the writer "says" on the surface level of the text. As such, narrative becomes the object that must be thought through in order for the reader to construct allegorical meaning. Or, narrative may be the pre-textual story that the writer uses as the basis for the textual object. In this way we can consider the "idea" of the conceptual work to be the narrative of focus. Or, the narrative might be the path through the piece, the interpretation of the text created by those engaging with the work. Any given work of allegorical writing might have narrative operating on one or more levels at the same time. The flexibility of the term "allegory," and Place and Fitterman's elastic use of the concept, allow us to see the possibility of many different forms of making meaning.
The Second Fundamental Expansion:
The plural form of "conceptualism" employed by the work's title indicates the second way in which "Notes on Conceptualisms" operates as an expansive text. Under Place and Fitterman's definition of conceptual-writing-as-allegorical-writing, many different modes of work can be classified as "conceptual." Obviously, "conceptualisms" means to include non-literary genres of art making, but it also includes modes of writing that, it seems, would not be admitted into the fold by other definitions.[vi] While Place and Fitterman's "conceptualisms" has room for what they term "pure" conceptual writing (writing wherein the materiality of text operates as visual Conceptual Art (Dworkin) or writing wherein concept or idea takes precedence over the body and execution of the writing (Goldsmith)), Place and Fitterman open the field to include what they term "impure" or "post-conceptual" writing. In section 3b Place and Fitterman directly address the nature of "impure" conceptual work and the place it has under their umbrella:
What is an "impure" conceptualism or post-conceptualism in writing? A post-conceptualism might invite more interventionist editing of appropriated source material and more direct treatment of the self in relation to the "object," as in post-conceptual visual art where the self re-emerges, albeit alienated or distorted (see Paul McCarthy) (21).
Adding on to and/or editing the source material is more a strategy of post-conceptualism; so is reneging on the faithful execution of the initial concept. The most impure conceptualism may manifest in a symptomatic textual excess/extravagance such as the baroque (22).
If we know our history of the term we can see that this definition and description of strategy provides many points of departure from what Place and Fitterman call "pure" conceptual work—conceptual writing as it is theorized by Dworkin and Goldsmith. For example, Dworkin's Introduction to the UbuWeb anthology begins by contrasting the nature of conceptual writing with the ethos of subjectivity that drives writing in the (normative) Romantic tradition. Under this rubric conceptual writing is born out of asking and answering such questions as "what would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of the intellect rather than emotions? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replace by the direct presentation of language itself, with 'spontaneous overflow' supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process?"
From considering these questions we can clearly see that Dworkin's framing of conceptual writing shows the movement to be one that pulls away from focusing writing on the question of subjectivity. As such, the UbuWeb notion of conceptual writing seems to have little room for the "impure" conceptual focus on what Place and Fitterman call "a direct treatment of the self in relation to the 'object,' as in post-conceptual visual art where the self re-emerges." Where "impure" conceptual writing might invest in re-emergent selves, "pure" conceptual writing seems to ask us to build writing and reading strategies that invest otherwise than in questions of the self, be they questions of "re-emergent," emergent, submerged, or merged subjectivities.
Furthermore, the "impure" conceptualist strategy of "interventionist editing" assumes that the textual object resulting from the conceptual idea is, itself, a thing of value that might be made better or differently or more meaningfully than it otherwise would be if the author strictly followed the rules of concept. Compare this emphasis on editing the made object with Dworkin's assertion that the test of conceptual writing is "no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise." Employing "interventionist editing" tactics implies that, well, yes, this particular work of writing could have been done otherwise, and that there is a good to be had from making it better. Place and Fitterman assert that such work might still qualify as "conceptual" nevertheless. In addition, such strategies emphasize the result of writing—emphasize a thing that will be read, engaged with, and evaluated by an aesthetic standard that is antithetical to the "pure" conceptualist emphasis on concept over resulting object, on an ethos of the boring, the valueless, and the nutritionless.[vii]
Some readers may worry that in pluralizing conceptual writing to include elements such as interest in subjectivity and investment in improving the resulting written object, Place and Fitterman water down the ultimate value of conceptual writing practices. Rather than shrinking away from this worry, Place and Fitterman ask themselves: "Do these broken promises point to a failure in a conceptual writing text?" The answer that they give is: "Failure is the goal of conceptual writing." So, in virtue of the fact that they fail to achieve the goals of "pure" conceptualism, "impure" conceptualisms gain a place within the movement.
Whether or not you buy this response, Place and Fitterman's forays into the "impure" bring intriguing questions and quandaries to the table. The resulting volume takes on the relationship of conceptual work to such elements as feminism, ethics, representation, commoditization, failure, possibility, and of course, allegory. I encourage you to believe the testimonials of Ron Silliman, Marjorie Perloff, Mary Kelly, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Christian Bök declaring that this book is well worth the read.

Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith on Uncreative Writing

Kenneth Goldsmith's latest novel is a word for word transcription of the longest game in the history of baseball, adverts and all. Troubled romantic geniuses the world over are being mocked, but something tells RJ Thomson Goldsmith might be fucking with all of us...
Feature by RJ Thomson.
Kenneth Goldsmith doesn’t know much about sport. In fact, he tells me 'I know nothing about sport'. So how did he come to be writing an epic tome titled Sports, as part of his ambitiously-titled American Trilogy?(1)
The explanation lies in years of building a career at the very forefront of literary practice. Goldsmith trained as a sculptor, but after using more and more text in his work he made a clean break in the mid-nineties and became a full-time writer. He says he was quickly accepted as working with ‘a new kind of literature’, and it’s not hard to see why people saw his work as being a departure from established modes.
His first full-length work was the not-so-catchily-titled No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (1997), for which, wait for it, he recorded every word or phrase he heard that rhymed with ‘r’ over a three-year period. It's a big book.
Reading this you could be forgiven for thinking Goldsmith’s approach is incredibly dry, but there are a couple of things I should signpost to do him justice. The first is that this is billed as ‘conceptual writing’, so the idea behind the text is as important as the text itself. That’s not to say his stuff isn’t for reading, but certainly a great deal of its value is in allowing people to riff on the very thought that someone actually did this stuff.
But the works are also highly invested with Goldsmith’s personality. I first encountered Goldsmith reading from No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 at the excellent Instal festival in Glasgow in February, and his easy-going sense of irony added considerably to the enjoyment of the performance, and the impression that these accumulated fragments hold up as rather wonderful poetry. Cheekily, the last ‘phrase’ in No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 is an entire DH Lawrence short story that just so happens to end on an ‘r’.
Despite his laid-back manner, Goldsmith clearly considers his practice to be about the most relevant currently being produced. His work has evolved rapidly over the past ten years, consistent mostly in its uncompromising approach. Soliloquy (2001) is a record of every word Goldsmith spoke for a week, but none of those he heard. You can interpret the concept as far as you like, but one of Soliloquy’s enduring qualities is that it is frequently hilarious – the scene in which Goldsmith tries to persuade his wife to give him a blowjob despite the running dictaphone particularly comes to mind. On another tack, Day (2003) transcribed every word (again, including all the ads) of the New York Times from 10 September 2001; love and loss, tragedy and comedy, the universal and the personal are all there in force, along with a fair selection of discount furniture offers.
In conversation Goldsmith maintains the good-natured humour of his stage persona, and gives no impression of being a ‘tortured artist’. It’s possible that this is because times have changed, and our clichéed expectations of writers with them, but it could also simply be because Goldsmith is enjoying being an artist at the top of his game.(2)
RT: Literature has often been said to have been overtaken by other forms of art in terms of its experimental qualities. Do you see the work you’re doing as reclaiming that vanguard position for literature?
KG: Absolutely. In 1959 Brion Gysin said that poetry was 50 years behind painting.(3) And I think that’s even more true today. Whereas other forms of art accepted sampling, appropriation and tactics like that, literature is still invested in prioritising the ‘true’ and ‘subjective’ self – which of course other artists did away with a century ago.
With that context in mind, to what extent is there a political dimension to your approach to poetics?
Absolutely. It says that anybody can do this. John Cage was attacked.(4) They said: ‘John Cage, anybody can do what you do.’ And John Cage said, ‘Yes. But nobody does it.’ So I think it’s a similar thing: Cage said that all sound is music; I say all words are poetry – to be made by anybody, not just somebody with a Masters in Fine Arts.
Are you ever tempted to get help transcribing?
Oh, there’s no money in this. I can’t pay anybody. And in a sense, in transcription everyone has their unique style. If you and I were to transcribe an identical conversation we would transcribe it completely differently. And so this is a validation of this kind of writing: people say that this isn’t writing; it’s merely transcription; but in fact it is very unique and individual writing.
How do you feel about your position within literature?
Literature is a field that’s so dusty it needs to be brought up to date. Somebody’s got to do it. It’s not very hard, but I don’t really see anybody out there doing it. So look, let’s bring literature up to date with the rest of the world. We’re very far behind.
I love literature; that’s why I’m so invested in making it contemporary. It just needs a bit of a… loving push.
Are you optimistic for the state of culture?
Oh absolutely. I’m so optimistic; it’s such an incredible time to be living in. I think postmodernism really tried to get into a lot of the things we’re into now. But what’s really moving the thing is technology, and the true wonder of the technological moment we’re in, the true power.
Now, if writing doesn’t reflect the influence of technology, I don’t think that writing can be called contemporary. It has to address this radically new environment we’re in, and I think quite frankly we’re at the most profound moment and the most important moment for culture since modernism. Suddenly writing has met its equivalent to when painting met photography.
What do you feel are the greatest challenges facing artists in 2008? Is it all technology? Is it not so much a challenge as an opportunity?
Well I think everything’s been changed. I think artists now have to renegotiate distribution and representation of their own work: every artist is a post-production studio, for the first time ever. Geographic displacement: it doesn’t seem to matter where you live. God, everything’s up for grabs right now.
You’ve spoken about the importance of getting the concept right. I’ve personally found reading your work to be very stimulating on a word-to-word basis, but is there a danger it will lose some of its shock value as people become more accustomed to similar forms? And is it even meant to be shocking?
I think an artist is obliged to reflect the time in which they’re living. An attitude like that implies obsolescence, and I’m sure ten years from now my rhetoric will sound incredibly dated. And you know, that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make: I leave eternity for somebody else. [The way Goldsmith managed to put this last line, dripping with irony yet somehow sincere, isn’t something I’m going to able to replicate here, but needs to be acknowledged.]
Your own practice has developed considerably over the time you’ve been working; I imagine the same will happen over the next ten years. Do you have any areas of interest for the foreseeable future; have you got any projects on the horizon?
In a broader sense, I come from a culture of paper, books, vinyl; I come from a culture of things. Quite frankly, I’m just a bridge. Although I say my works are appropriated, they’re all authored – they’ve got my name on it. They’re still published in books. I think there are a lot of problems between what I say and what I do, and that reflects my age. The future really belongs to anonymous writers writing for anonymous readers: people who are writing programmes for machines to read, for other machines to read; I think this whole thing is going to be pushed much further. I’m just a bridge between the old and the new.

It's Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It's 'Repurposing.' 1
It's Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It's 'Repurposing.'

In 1969 the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, "The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more." I've come to embrace Huebler's idea, though it might be retooled as: "The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more."
It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing: With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours.
The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term "unoriginal genius" to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one's mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined another term, "moving information," to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today's writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.
Perloff's notion of unoriginal genius should not be seen merely as a theoretical conceit but rather as a realized writing practice, one that dates back to the early part of the 20th century, embodying an ethos in which the construction or conception of a text is as important as what the text says or does. Think, for example, of the collated, note-taking practice of Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project or the mathematically driven constraint-based works by Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians.
Today technology has exacerbated these mechanistic tendencies in writing (there are, for instance, several Web-based versions of Raymond Queneau's 1961 laboriously hand-constructed Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), inciting younger writers to take their cues from the workings of technology and the Web as ways of constructing literature. As a result, writers are exploring ways of writing that have been thought, traditionally, to be outside the scope of literary practice: word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name just a few.
In 2007 Jonathan Lethem published a pro-plagiarism, plagiarized essay in Harper's titled, "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism." It's a lengthy defense and history of how ideas in literature have been shared, riffed, culled, reused, recycled, swiped, stolen, quoted, lifted, duplicated, gifted, appropriated, mimicked, and pirated for as long as literature has existed. Lethem reminds us of how gift economies, open-source cultures, and public commons have been vital for the creation of new works, with themes from older works forming the basis for new ones. Echoing the cries of free-culture advocates such as Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow, he eloquently rails against copyright law as a threat to the lifeblood of creativity. From Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons to Muddy Waters's blues tunes, he showcases the rich fruits of shared culture. He even cites examples of what he had assumed were his own "original" thoughts, only later to realize—usually by Googling—that he had unconsciously absorbed someone else's ideas that he then claimed as his own.
It's a great essay. Too bad he didn't "write" it. The punchline? Nearly every word and idea was borrowed from somewhere else—either appropriated in its entirety or rewritten by Lethem. His essay is an example of "patchwriting," a way of weaving together various shards of other people's words into a tonally cohesive whole. It's a trick that students use all the time, rephrasing, say, a Wikipedia entry into their own words. And if they're caught, it's trouble: In academia, patchwriting is considered an offense equal to that of plagiarism. If Lethem had submitted this as a senior thesis or dissertation chapter, he'd be shown the door. Yet few would argue that he didn't construct a brilliant work of art—as well as writing a pointed essay—entirely in the words of others. It's the way in which he conceptualized and executed his writing machine—surgically choosing what to borrow, arranging those words in a skillful way—that wins us over. Lethem's piece is a self-reflexive, demonstrative work of unoriginal genius.
Lethem's provocation belies a trend among younger writers who take his exercise one step further by boldly appropriating the work of others without citation, disposing of the artful and seamless integration of Lethem's patchwriting. For them, the act of writing is literally moving language from one place to another, proclaiming that context is the new content. While pastiche and collage have long been part and parcel of writing, with the rise of the Internet plagiaristic intensity has been raised to extreme levels.
Over the past five years, we have seen a retyping of Jack Kerouac's On the Road in its entirety, a page a day, every day, on a blog for a year; an appropriation of the complete text of a day's copy of The New York Times published as a 900-page book; a list poem that is nothing more than reframing a listing of stores from a shopping-mall directory into a poetic form; an impoverished writer who has taken every credit-card application sent to him and bound them into an 800-page print-on-demand book so costly that he can't afford a copy; a poet who has parsed the text of an entire 19th-century book on grammar according to its own methods, even down to the book's index; a lawyer who re-presents the legal briefs of her day job as poetry in their entirety without changing a word; another writer who spends her days at the British Library copying down the first verse of Dante's Inferno from every English translation that the library possesses, one after another, page after page, until she exhausts the library's supply; a writing team that scoops status updates off social-networking sites and assigns them to the names of deceased writers ("Jonathan Swift has got tix to the Wranglers game tonight"), creating an epic, never-ending work of poetry that rewrites itself as frequently as Facebook pages are updated; and an entire movement of writing, called Flarf, that is based on grabbing the worst of Google search results: the more offensive, the more ridiculous, the more outrageous, the better.
These writers are language hoarders; their projects are epic, mirroring the gargantuan scale of textuality on the Internet. While the works often take an electronic form, paper versions circulate in journals and zines, purchased by libraries, and received by, written about, and studied by readers of literature. While this new writing has an electronic gleam in its eye, its results are distinctly analog, taking inspiration from radical modernist ideas and juicing them with 21st-century technology.
Far from this "uncreative" literature being a nihilistic, begrudging acceptance—or even an outright rejection—of a presumed "technological enslavement," it is a writing imbued with celebration, ablaze with enthusiasm for the future, embracing this moment as one pregnant with possibility. This joy is evident in the writing itself, in which there are moments of unanticipated beauty—some grammatical, others structural, many philosophical: the wonderful rhythms of repetition, the spectacle of the mundane reframed as literature, a reorientation to the poetics of time, and fresh perspectives on readerliness, to name just a few. And then there's emotion: yes, emotion. But far from being coercive or persuasive, this writing delivers emotion obliquely and unpredictably, with sentiments expressed as a result of the writing process rather than by authorial intention.
These writers function more like programmers than traditional writers, taking Sol Lewitt's dictum to heart: "When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art," and raising new possibilities of what writing can be. The poet Craig Dworkin posits:
What would a nonexpressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with "spontaneous overflow" supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet's ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself? So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.

 There's been an explosion of writers employing strategies of copying and appropriation over the past few years, with the computer encouraging writers to mimic its workings. When cutting and pasting are integral to the writing process, it would be mad to imagine that writers wouldn't exploit these functions in extreme ways that weren't intended by their creators.
If we look back at the history of video art—the last time mainstream technology collided with art practices—we find several precedents for such gestures. One that stands out is Nam June Paik's 1965 "Magnet TV," in which the artist placed a large horseshoe magnet atop a black-and-white television, eloquently turning a space previously reserved for Jack Benny and Ed Sullivan into loopy, organic abstractions. The gesture questioned the one-way flow of information. In Paik's version of TV, you could control what you saw: Spin the magnet, and the image changes with it. Until that point, television's mission was as a delivery vehicle for entertainment and clear communication. Yet an artist's simple gesture upended television in ways of which both users and producers were unaware, opening up entirely new vocabularies for the medium while deconstructing myths of power, politics, and distribution that were embedded—but hitherto invisible—in the technology. The cut-and-paste function in computing is being exploited by writers just as Paik's magnet was for TV.
While home computers have been around for about two decades, and people have been cutting and pasting all that time, it's the sheer penetration and saturation of broadband that makes the harvesting of masses of language easy and tempting. On a dial-up, although it was possible to copy and paste words, in the beginning texts were doled out one screen at a time. And even though it was text, the load time was still considerable. With broadband, the spigot runs 24/7.
By comparison, there was nothing native to typewriting that encouraged the replication of texts. It was slow and laborious to do so. Later, after you had finished writing, you could make all the copies you wanted on a Xerox machine. As a result, there was a tremendous amount of 20th-century postwriting print-based detournement: William S. Burroughs's cutups and fold-ins and Bob Cobbing's distressed mimeographed poems are prominent examples. The previous forms of borrowing in literature, collage, and pastiche—taking a word from here, a sentence from there—were developed based on the amount of labor involved. Having to manually retype or hand-copy an entire book on a typewriter is one thing; cutting and pasting an entire book with three keystrokes—select all / copy / paste—is another.
Clearly this is setting the stage for a literary revolution.
Or is it? From the looks of it, most writing proceeds as if the Internet had never happened. The literary world still gets regularly scandalized by age-old bouts of fraudulence, plagiarism, and hoaxes in ways that would make, say, the art, music, computing, or science worlds chuckle with disbelief. It's hard to imagine the James Frey or J.T. Leroy scandals upsetting anybody familiar with the sophisticated, purposely fraudulent provocations of Jeff Koons or the rephotographing of advertisements by Richard Prince, who was awarded a Guggenheim retrospective for his plagiaristic tendencies. Koons and Prince began their careers by stating upfront that they were appropriating and being intentionally "unoriginal," whereas Frey and Leroy—even after they were caught—were still passing off their works as authentic, sincere, and personal statements to an audience clearly craving such qualities in literature. The ensuing dance was comical. In Frey's case, Random House was sued and had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and thousands to readers who felt deceived. Subsequent printings of the book now include a disclaimer informing readers that what they are about to read is, in fact, a work of fiction.
Imagine all the pains that could have been avoided had Frey or Leroy taken a Koonsian tack from the outset and admitted that their strategy was one of embellishment, with dashes of inauthenticity, falseness, and unoriginality thrown in. But no.
Nearly a century ago, the art world put to rest conventional notions of originality and replication with the gestures of Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, Francis Picabia's mechanical drawings, and Walter Benjamin's oft-quoted essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Since then, a parade of blue-chip artists from Andy Warhol to Matthew Barney have taken these ideas to new levels, resulting in terribly complex notions of identity, media, and culture. These, of course, have become part of mainstream art-world discourse, to the point where counterreactions based on sincerity and representation have emerged.
Similarly, in music, sampling—entire tracks constructed from other tracks—has become commonplace. From Napster to gaming, from karaoke to torrent files, the culture appears to be embracing the digital and all the complexity it entails—with the exception of writing, which is still mostly wedded to promoting an authentic and stable identity at all costs.
I'm not saying that such writing should be discarded: Who hasn't been moved by a great memoir? But I'm sensing that literature—infinite in its potential of ranges and expressions—is in a rut, tending to hit the same note again and again, confining itself to the narrowest of spectrums, resulting in a practice that has fallen out of step and is unable to take part in arguably the most vital and exciting cultural discourses of our time. I find this to be a profoundly sad moment—and a great lost opportunity for literary creativity to revitalize itself in ways it hasn't imagined.
Perhaps one reason writing is stuck might be the way creative writing is taught. In regard to the many sophisticated ideas concerning media, identity, and sampling developed over the past century, books about how to be a creative writer have relied on clichéd notions of what it means to be "creative." These books are peppered with advice like: "A creative writer is an explorer, a groundbreaker. Creative writing allows you to chart your own course and boldly go where no one has gone before." Or, ignoring giants like de Certeau, Cage, and Warhol, they suggest that "creative writing is liberation from the constraints of everyday life."
In the early part of the 20th century, both Duchamp and the composer Erik Satie professed the desire to live without memory. For them it was a way of being present to the wonders of the everyday. Yet, it seems, every book on creative writing insists that "memory is often the primary source of imaginative experience." The how-to sections of these books strike me as terribly unsophisticated, generally coercing us to prioritize the theatrical over the mundane as the basis of our writings: "Using the first-person point of view, explain how a 55-year-old man feels on his wedding day. It is his first marriage." I prefer the ideas of Gertrude Stein, who, writing in the third person, tells of her dissatisfaction with such techniques: "She experimented with everything in trying to describe. She tried a bit inventing words but she soon gave that up. The english language was her medium and with the english language the task was to be achieved, the problem solved. The use of fabricated words offended her, it was an escape into imitative emotionalism."
For the past several years, I've taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania called "Uncreative Writing." In it, students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing. Not surprisingly, they thrive. Suddenly what they've surreptitiously become expert at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness.
We retype documents and transcribe audio clips. We make small changes to Wikipedia pages (changing an "a" to "an" or inserting an extra space between words). We hold classes in chat rooms, and entire semesters are spent exclusively in Second Life. Each semester, for their final paper, I have them purchase a term paper from an online paper mill and sign their name to it, surely the most forbidden action in all of academia. Students then must get up and present the paper to the class as if they wrote it themselves, defending it from attacks by the other students. What paper did they choose? Is it possible to defend something you didn't write? Something, perhaps, you don't agree with? Convince us.
All this, of course, is technology-driven. When the students arrive in class, they are told that they must have their laptops open and connected. And so we have a glimpse into the future. And after seeing what the spectacular results of this are, how completely engaged and democratic the classroom is, I am more convinced that I can never go back to a traditional classroom pedagogy. I learn more from the students than they can ever learn from me. The role of the professor now is part party host, part traffic cop, full-time enabler.
The secret: the suppression of self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly "uncreative" as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother's cancer operation. It's just that we've never been taught to value such choices.
After a semester of my forcibly suppressing a student's "creativity" by making her plagiarize and transcribe, she will tell me how disappointed she was because, in fact, what we had accomplished was not uncreative at all; by not being "creative," she had produced the most creative body of work in her life. By taking an opposite approach to creativity—the most trite, overused, and ill-defined concept in a writer's training—she had emerged renewed and rejuvenated, on fire and in love again with writing.
Having worked in advertising for many years as a "creative director," I can tell you that, despite what cultural pundits might say, creativity—as it's been defined by our culture, with its endless parade of formulaic novels, memoirs, and films—is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the "creative class" but also as a member of the "artistic class." At a time when technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it's time for us to question and tear down such clichés and reconstruct them into something new, something contemporary, something—finally—relevant.
Clearly, not everyone agrees. Recently, after I finished giving a lecture at an Ivy League university, an elderly, well-known poet, steeped in the modernist tradition, stood up in the back of the auditorium and, wagging his finger at me, accused me of nihilism and of robbing poetry of its joy. He upbraided me for knocking the foundation out from under the most hallowed of grounds, then tore into me with a line of questioning I've heard many times before: If everything can be transcribed and then presented as literature, then what makes one work better than another? If it's a matter of simply cutting and pasting the entire Internet into a Microsoft Word document, where does it end? Once we begin to accept all language as poetry by mere reframing, don't we risk throwing any semblance of judgment and quality out the window? What happens to notions of authorship? How are careers and canons established, and, subsequently, how are they to be evaluated? Are we simply re-enacting the death of the author, a figure that such theories failed to kill the first time around? Will all texts in the future be authorless and nameless, written by machines for machines? Is the future of literature reducible to mere code?
Valid concerns, I think, for a man who emerged from the literary battles of the 20th century victorious. The challenges to his generation were just as formidable. How did they convince traditionalists that disjunctive uses of language, conveyed by exploded syntax and compound words, could be equally expressive of human emotion as time-tested methods? Or that a story need not be told as strict narrative in order to convey its own logic and sense? And yet, against all odds, they persevered.
The 21st century, with its queries so different from those of the last, finds me responding from another angle. If it's a matter of simply cutting and pasting the entire Internet into a Microsoft Word document, then what becomes important is what you—the author—decide to choose. Success lies in knowing what to include and—more important—what to leave out. If all language can be transformed into poetry by merely reframing—an exciting possibility—then she who reframes words in the most charged and convincing way will be judged the best.
I agree that the moment we throw judgment and quality out the window, we're in trouble. Democracy is fine for YouTube, but it's generally a recipe for disaster when it comes to art. While all words may be created equal, the way in which they're assembled isn't; it's impossible to suspend judgment and folly to dismiss quality. Mimesis and replication don't eradicate authorship; rather, they simply place new demands on authors, who must take these new conditions into account as part of the landscape when conceiving of a work of art: If you don't want it copied, don't put it online.
Careers and canons won't be established in traditional ways. I'm not so sure that we'll still have careers in the same way we used to. Literary works might function the same way that memes do today on the Web, spreading for a short period, often unsigned and unauthored, only to be supplanted by the next ripple. While the author won't die, we might begin to view authorship in a more conceptual way: Perhaps the best authors of the future will be ones who can write the best programs with which to manipulate, parse, and distribute language-based practices. Even if, as Christian Bök claims, poetry in the future will be written by machines for other machines to read, there will be, for the foreseeable future, someone behind the curtain inventing those drones, so that even if literature is reducible to mere code—an intriguing idea—the smartest minds behind the machines will be considered our greatest authors.
In 1959 the poet and artist Brion Gysin claimed that writing was 50 years behind painting. He might still be right: In the art world, since Impressionism, the avant-garde has been the mainstream. Innovation and risk taking have been consistently rewarded. But, in spite of the successes of modernism, literature has remained on two parallel tracks, the mainstream and the avant-garde, with the two rarely intersecting. Now the conditions of digital culture have unexpectedly forced a collision, scrambling the once-sure footing of both camps. Suddenly we all find ourselves in the same boat, grappling with new questions concerning authorship, originality, and the way meaning is forged.

Uncreative Writing: Redefining Language and Authorship in the Digital Age


“An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination.”
“And your way, is it really YOUR way?,” Henry Miller famously asked. “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources,” Mark Twain consoled Helen Keller when she was accused of plagiarism. Even our brains might be wired for the necessary forgettings of creativity. What, then, is the value of “originality” — or even its definition?
A recent interview on The Awl reminded me of a wonderful book by Kenneth Goldsmith — MoMA’s first poetry laureate, founder of the massive grassroots audio archive Ubu Web, and professor at my alma mater, UPenn’s Kelly Writers House — titled Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (public library; UK). Much like Vannevar Bush did in 1945 when he envisioned the future of knowledge and presaged the value of what he poetically termed “trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record,” Goldsmith examines the importance of sorting existing ideas and makes a case for the cultural value of stealing like an artist, particularly as we’re building our new literary canon.
Goldsmith writes in the introduction:
In 1969 the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, ‘The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’ I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be retooled as ‘The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’ It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through the thicket of information — how I manage it, how I parse it, how I organize and distribute it — is what distinguishes my writing from yours.

He samples a beautiful concept that broadens our definition of genius:
Literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term unoriginal genius to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of genius — a romantic isolated figure — is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined a term, moving information, to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.
(Though, one might argue, information is only valuable when it’s synthesized into knowledge, which is then in turn transmuted into wisdom — so, perhaps, an even better concept would be moving wisdom.)
Goldsmith goes on to examine how technology has sparked a new culture of transformation as authorship:
Today, technology has exacerbated these mechanistic tendencies in writing … inciting younger writers to take their cues from the workings of technology and the Web as ways of constructing literature. As a result, writers are exploring ways of writing that have been thought, traditionally, to be outside the scope of literary practice: word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name but a few.
There’s been an explosion of writers employing strategies of copying and appropriation over the past few years, with the computer encouraging writers to mimic its workings. When cutting and pasting are integral to the writing process, i would be mad to imagine that writers wouldn’t exploit these functions in extreme ways that weren’t intended by their creators.
Except, of course, none of this is new. We already know that as far back as the Middle Ages, authors were making remarkable florilegia, the Tumblrs of their day, by literally cutting and pasting text from existing manuscripts to create entirely new contexts.
Still, Goldsmith is careful not to disparage traditional literature but laments the stale values it has instilled in us:
I’m not saying that such writing should be discarded. . . . But I’m sensing that literature — infinite in its potential of ranges and expression — is in a rut, tending to hit the same note again and again, confining itself to the narrowest of spectrums, resulting in a practice that has fallen out of step and unable to take part in arguably the most vital and exciting cultural discourses of our time. I find this to be a profoundly sad moment — and a great lost opportunity for literary creativity to revitalize itself in ways it hasn’t imagined.
Perhaps one reason writing is stuck might be the way creative writing is taught. In regard to the many sophisticated ideas concerning media, identity, and sampling developed over the past century, books about how to be a creative writer have completely missed the boat, relying on clichéd notions of what it means to be ‘creative.’

For the past several years, Goldsmith has been teaching a Penn class after which the book is titled, inverting the paradigm of traditional “creative writing” courses. His students are penalized for any semblance of originality and “creativity,” and rewarded for plagiarism, repurposing, sampling, and outright stealing. But as counterproductive and blasphemous as this may sound, it turns out to be a gateway to something unusual yet inevitable, that certain slot machine quality of creativity:
The secret: the suppression of self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly ‘uncreative’ as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation. It’s just that we’ve never been taught to value such choices. After a semester of forcibly suppressing a student’s ‘creativity’ by making them plagiarize and transcribe, she will approach me with a sad face at the end of the semester, telling me how disappointed she was because, in fact, what we had accomplished was not uncreative at all; by not being ‘creative,’ she produced the most creative body of work writing in her life. By taking an opposite approach to creativity — the most trite, overused, and ill-defined concept in a writer’s training — she had emerged renewed and rejuvenated, on fire and in love again with writing.
Goldsmith echoes legendary designer Charles Eames, who famously advised to “innovate only as a last resort,” and writes:
Having worked in advertising for many years as a ‘creative director,’ I can tell you that, despite what cultural pundits might say, creativity — as [it has] been defined by our culture with its endless parade of formulaic novels, memoirs, and films — is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the ‘creative class’ but also as a member of the ‘artistic class.’ Living when technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it’s time to question and tear down such clichés and lay them on the floor in front of us, then reconstruct these smoldering embers into something new, something contemporary, something — finally — relevant.
In addressing the most common contestations to his ideas about accepting all language as poetry by mere reframing — about what happens to the notion of authorship, about how careers and canons are to be established, about whether the heart of literature is reducible to mere algorithms — Goldsmith seconds a sentiment French polymath Henri Poincaré shared more then a century ago when he noted that to create is merely to choose wisely from the existing pool of ideas:
What becomes important is what you — the author — [decide] to choose. Success lies in knowing what to include and — more important — what to leave out. If all language can be transformed into poetry by mere reframing — an exciting possibility — then she who reframes words in the most charged and convincing way will be judged the best. I agree that the moment we throw judgment and quality out the window we’re in trouble. Democracy is fine for YouTube, but it’s generally a recipe for disaster when it comes to art. While all the words may be created equal — and thus treated — the way in which they’re assembled isn’t; it’s impossible to suspend judgment and folly to dismiss quality. Mimesis and replication [don't] eradicate authorship, rather they simply place new demands on authors who must take these new conditions into account as part and parcel of the landscape when conceiving of a work of art: if you don’t want it copied, don’t put it online.
Ultimately, he argues that all of this is about the evolution — rather than the destruction — of authorship:
In 1959 the poet and artist Brion Gysin claimed that writing was fifty years behind painting. And he might still be right: in the art world, since impressionism, the avant-garde has been the mainstream. Innovation and risk taking have been consistently rewarded. But, in spite of the successes of modernism, literature has remained on two parallel tracks, the mainstream and the avant-garde, with the two rarely intersecting. Yet the conditions of digital culture have unexpectedly forced a collision, scrambling the once-sure footing of both camps. Suddenly, we all find ourselves in the same boat grappling with new questions concerning authorship, originality, and the way meaning is forged.
The rest of Uncreative Writing goes on to explore the history of appropriation in art, the emerging interchangeability between words and images in digital culture, the challenges of defining one’s identity in the vastness of the online environment, and many other pressing facets of what it means to be a writer — or, even more broadly, a creator — in the age of the internet. Complement it with the equally subversive How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

Kenneth Goldsmith

by Marcus Boon

Kenneth Goldsmith at the White House. May 11, 2011.
Kenneth Goldsmith is a trickster for sure, not just because his work takes place on the crossroads between legal and illegal, between digital and real life, between word and image, but because he’s a man who wears a lot of hats, metaphorical and otherwise. He’s the founder of UbuWeb, the largest archive of avant-garde art on the Internet, and an incredibly rich and dense resource for anyone interested in the history of experimental writing, music, film, and visual arts. He was a radio DJ on WFMU for many years, producing a prank-heavy show of experimental horseplay called Unpopular Music. He’s a professor of creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses on what he calls “uncreative writing.” He’s a visual, sound, and text-based artist and poet, author of a number of remarkable books, including No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (1997), Day (2003), the radio-appropriation trilogy The Weather/Traffic/Sports (2005–08), and is currently working on a history of New York in the 20th century built around Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. His new book, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, sets out much of the thinking behind these projects and proposes a manifesto for writing in the 21st century, while the recent collection Against Expression, co-edited with poetics scholar Craig Dworkin, brings together key literary texts that enact what Dworkin and Goldsmith call conceptual writing—writing built around specific processes of experimentation (i.e., concepts) rather than the demand for self-expression.
Interviewing Goldsmith is a slightly unnerving affair, even for someone such as myself, who’s known him for many years. Goldsmith has brought many of the techniques of appropriation-based visual art to literature, and then multiplied the power of these techniques again through his provocative use of digital technologies and the Internet. The result is that anyone speaking to Goldsmith knows that anything said to him might be appropriated, transformed into a text of some kind, and made part of one of Goldsmith’s strange and beautiful textual mirrors. I met Goldsmith in the West 20s Manhattan loft he shares with his wife, visual artist Cheryl Donegan, and sons, Finnegan and Cassius. The loft’s walls are covered with books, CDs, and vinyl—relics of the predigital age. The main apartment window, which used to offer a view of the wonderful Chelsea Flea Market, where Goldsmith acquired many of his treasures, now looks onto a vast apartment building. We talked for an hour before lunch. My recording device died halfway through the interview. Goldsmith’s didn’t. A small detail, but important, especially today, because as William S. Burroughs said, and Goldsmith understands very well, there’s “nothing here but the recordings.”

Marcus Boon A fair amount of your work is directly concerned with issues of community and a sort of conviviality that opens up a new kind of social space through revealing a common language that we prefer not to think about. Even a piece like Soliloquy, which I was just flipping through in the Against Expression anthology you co-edited—you’re taking something that would usually be kept private, your own everyday speech, and turning it into a highly public text available to anyone who cares to read it. Those who find themselves mentioned in the text might be scandalized, yet a kind of community and friendship seems to open up in that act of text making.
Kenneth Goldsmith I think so. My work is relational in that it starts a conversation between people, a conversation that, most times, is more interesting than the words printed on the page.
MB The conversation wouldn’t be possible without a ballsy or courageous act of putting yourself, and other people sometimes, on the line. That gesture opens up things that are actually worth talking about.
KG There is a lot at stake in these books. For example, Soliloquy—an unedited, 600-page book of every word I spoke for a week—cost me many friendships. Or Fidget—every move my body made over the course of one day—included having to describe my masturbating in detail. Even the marathon transcription of a day’s copy of the New York Times was all I did for an entire year, every day. Fantastic things to think and talk about, but not so great to read. But this conversation they generate oddly gives way to a sort of populism and an inclusiveness—everyone feels they can participate in it. For example, when I read at the White House in May I read three short pieces about the Brooklyn Bridge. The first was an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”; the second was an excerpt from Hart Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge poem, The Bridge; and the third was from my book Traffic, a transcription of 24 hours’ worth of one-minute traffic reports from 1010 WINS New York City news radio. The audience at the White House sat quietly through the Whitman and Crane—all the stuff that they’re supposed to like, which they can recognize as “poetry.” They treated it very reverentially. But when I began reading traffic reports they all got up and started screaming, applauding, and laughing! The whole room lit up when vernacular and mundane language entered the space, because it was something that they recognized, that they could relate to, even if it was droning traffic reports—something that in real life would cause anxiety. Now, of course my work was the most radical of the three because it was completely appropriated: there’s no emotion or pulling of the heartstrings; no higher metaphorical or spiritual message; and certainly nothing expresses my own interiority—which is something that traditional poetry is supposed to do. And yet, senators and Democratic Party honchos—even the President himself—were actually loving it! I thought to myself, Gee whiz, this is an amazingly rare collision of the avant-garde and the populist. It was very strange.
MB Yeah, that has been a trace throughout your work. I’m thinking of those large sculptures of giant books that you made in the mid-’80s, such as the solid-lead cast book of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, which was so heavy that it couldn’t be lifted, never mind stolen.
KG The Hoffman piece was about the idea of a ’60s revolution that literally never got off the ground, particularly during the Reagan years. But in the ’80s, a big conversation was the breakdown between high and low culture. I’m definitely a product of that time. Pop art—and Warhol in particular—was often a touchstone. When Chelsea Girls opened in several mainstream movie houses in New York in ’67, the lines were around the block to see it. It was a blockbuster, yet nothing happened: a split screen, and it goes on forever. Similarly, today, you have this return of a variant or mutant strain of pop art’s appeal—clothed in the avant-garde—rebounding in the digital. Christian Bök’s avant-Oulipian, constraint-based Eunoia—a five-chapter book, with each chapter written with words containing only one vowel—is the best-selling book of poetry ever in Canada; it even made the top-ten list in Britain. Christian finds that most people who read the book aren’t poets: they’re scientists, or teachers, or lawyers. These are extremely difficult texts, yet not difficult in modernist ways. Something is in the air.
MB That’s what I see with some of my students. For them, avant-garde mostly means unpopular, or something that doesn’t address itself directly to a mass of people. That seems like a categorical error.
KG It seems very old-fashioned, the high/low split. You’re back to Schoenberg, you know. Modernist purity had a very short shelf life: When you actually look at 12-tone music, it’s got no legs; you don’t find it anywhere other than horror films. What took off was the hybrid impurity of minimalism—the tonic, the melodic, the repetitive, the rock-based—which produces avant-garde works that are at once difficult and accessible. Any of Steve Reich’s early works, for instance, which use beats, electronics, and tape loops. It was hard to resist.
MB I was thinking earlier about this quote from Adorno that I used in my book In Praise of Copying. He says the problem with montage is that it’s not capable of destroying the elements of which the montage is actually made and, therefore, it remains subservient to existing social and political structures even when, like in German Dada, it seems to be against them. I guess he’s thinking of Schoenberg as an example of someone who actually tried to reconfigure the elements themselves, with mixed results. The minimalists found a different way out of that problem. They weren’t just generically reprogramming the individual elements out of which culture was made, they were creating radical experiments with the arrangement of elements that were more complex than a modernist piece of montage could ever be.
KG I think so. By (re)mixing traditions and subjecting them to a mathematical rigor, the minimalists expanded and enriched the Western classical vocabulary to include trance music, avant-jazz, all strains of Eastern tradition, West African drumming, and so forth. Schoenberg, by comparison, had a narrow view of what Western classical music could be. Another thing I loved about minimalism was its duration and stasis, something that conceptual writing—writing generated by an idea that is often more interesting than the resultant text—attempts to do with words. Listening to a reading of traffic reports sounds like minimalist music; every ten minutes the traffic has backed up more at the Lincoln Tunnel and has shrunk at the Holland. Things move glacially.
MB How do you deal with the problem of specific languages? You work in English, and one of the promises of the Internet is a sort of global language. Yet we are stuck with English as the dominant language on the Internet. And then there are all these other languages that remain unintelligible and unintegrated into global society.
KG Oddly, I don’t think I would have the career I have if I didn’t work in English. Writing in English gives you a great advantage. Everyone around the world can read your work. The downside is that you generally can’t read theirs. Many of my Scandinavian peers can’t read the work of their peers in neighboring countries. I suppose that the good thing about conceptual writing is that it’s not supposed to be read anyway. So if you get the idea of what a writer is trying to do, you understand the book, regardless of the language in which it is written. So, in a way, this type of writing that’s predicated upon not reading actually circumvents the problems of translation, as well as notions of primary, secondary, and tertiary languages.
MB That’s something that the post–World War II avant-gardes were concerned with in the beginning.
KG Absolutely. Think of Esperanto. In the latter sections of Pound’s Cantos, there’s almost no English on the page; instead, there’s bits of Latin, Chinese, mathematical symbols, lists of currencies, phonetic spelling, slang, Greek, Arabic, and so forth. And today, some of the most interesting writing uses combinatory languages, such as Caroline Bergvall’s trilingual pieces or her new book, which is based on the multilingual vagaries of Middle English. I also think of someone like Anne Tardos, who seems like she speaks—and writes—in six languages at once. Or Mónica de la Torre’s now famous provocation at the Rethinking Poetics conference last year at Columbia University when, in the middle of her presentation, she broke out, full-on, for about ten minutes entirely in Spanish, leaving all those who pay lip service to multilingualism and diversity angry because they couldn’t understand what she was saying. But these multilingual writers often don’t expect you to understand all those languages. That would be too limiting. Instead, they open up other dimensions—ones we generally ignore—of what words can be: material, phonetic, visual. To me, that’s quite exciting.
MB A direct response.
KG Yes, it’s back to Pound’s idea of the “radiant node or cluster” or Beckett’s “no symbols where none intended.” A direct response, immediately understood, combined with the need not to read the work but to think about it. And what’s happened is that conceptual writing has become the first international writing movement since concrete poetry (another movement that was based not on reading, but on seeing). And of course if you look at Apollinaire’s visual poem “Il Pleut,” with words streaming down from the sky, you immediately understand the poem without having to understand the French.
MB Some of the most interesting projects in the class I’m teaching right now online at York University were done by students using programs like Google Translate and playing with this movement from Mandarin to English and back to Mandarin.
KG If the tools are there, it’d be insane for writers not to use them. Yet there’s huge swaths of MFA-produced literary fiction that act like such tools and ideas don’t exist. Somebody recently said about Jonathan Franzen that he is the “greatest novelist . . . of the 1950s.” (laughter) We’re at this moment of great possibility and experimentation because of the tools that are sitting on our own desktop, yet many prefer to still act like “original geniuses” instead of “unoriginal geniuses,” a term Marjorie Perloff recently coined. Her idea is that due to changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of genius—a romantic isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination.
MB I almost feel like mistranslation might be more important to a global civilization than good translation, since it is an inevitable condition of our efforts to engage with people from radically different linguistic and geographical backgrounds.
KG I actually think that translation is not even the issue; it might be displacement. What De la Torre, Tardos, and Bergvall teach us is that conventional notions of textual understanding and translation have been disrupted by new modes of decontextualization. Torrents of decontextualized matter arrive on your desktop without warning, meaning, or context, for example, in the form of email attachments. Someone sends you, say, a JPEG or video, which is often ripped out of its original context and ends up smack-dab in the middle of your screen. You can’t understand it; you’ll never understand it. Instead, you have to deal with it on its terms, to live with it, accept it. This is radical disjunction on a global scale.
MB That reminds me of the shock of WikiLeaks. Until last year, it was just unimaginable that we could have an archive that was downloadable containing, say, the entire security data of a particular nation-state; that it could suddenly land on your desk.
KG There’s so much of it that no one can really deal with it. The media’s job was to tease out the “best” parts of it. In this way, they’re not acting differently from conceptual writers who pose more as information managers than they do as content generators, which has always been assumed to be the traditional role of the writer.
MB Let’s talk about your Against Expression and Uncreative Writing books a little. What kind of reaction do you get to the ideas in them? You’re teaching them at UPenn—
KG —And I spoke about them at the White House in front of Michelle Obama.
MB Right, I watched it. Did you get any response from people at that reading? Did anyone say anything?
KG No. It’s not really about response there.
MB Billy Collins didn’t lunge at you?
KG No. Actually Billy Collins made almost the identical point that I did, albeit coming from a completely different angle. He said something like, You don’t really have your own voice. You get your voice through deep reading of other people’s work. I agreed with him completely, but the difference being, I’m not interested in finding my own voice; I’m happy to take someone else’s.
MB It seems like that whole Language versus confessional poets debate—is it language or the individual personality that creates a poem?—that’s dominated the poetry scene in recent decades has ceased to apply today.
KG Yeah. That argument gets blown away when the digital enters the picture. This is the real break with modernism and the 20th century. In Uncreative Writing I say that with the invention of the camera, painting was forced to change its course in order to survive, hence Impressionism, abstraction, and modernism. Similarly, we’re at a moment where we’ve encountered a technology that forces writing to reimagine its mission in the digital age.
MB But like you say in the book, writing can’t simply mimic the gestures that painters developed in response to new technologies: the capturing of time in the painting, the move to abstraction, the focus on the materiality of paint or canvas or painting itself as action. So where does it go?
KG Language becomes mimetic; it becomes distributed. It’s not what we’re writing, rather it’s how we reframe and rejigger the plethora of language that already exists. These textual manipulations actually become the content of much of the new conceptual writing.
MB I look at the phrase ”against expression” and think we can’t really get rid of expression. Any linguistic endeavor, whether it’s someone sitting in their bedroom writing something out by hand or whether it’s some anonymous spam email with a bunch of words just thrown together literally at random . . . ultimately the experience of language has to do with expressivity. It can’t just be distribution. At a certain point what makes spam interesting is that the conjunction of those randomly chosen words actually shocks me or has some effect on me.
KG Yeah, writing—the smallest morpheme of language, that’s what modernism taught us—is deeply associative. For example, take the letter A: it could be the top grade; it could be the title of Andy Warhol’s wonderful book a, a novel; it could be the life work of Louis Zukofsky; it could be Hester Prynne’s shame, in The Scarlet Letter. There are all these associations with just one, simple letter form. When Abstract Expressionist painters were trying to excise semantic meaning from their work, they used geometry, a vocabulary they assumed to be affectless and neutral. But, of course, geometry is not innocent either. An Adolph Gottlieb red circle has all sorts of associations: a stoplight, a ball, the Japanese flag, the planet Mars, or the sun setting. Writers try too hard; expression, content, and meaning are all embedded into every bit of information we move. So “against expression,” in this case, means a reinvestigation—an upending—of conventional notions of expression, which have become so hackneyed and predictable that we’ve got to embrace opposites—uncreativity, unoriginal genius—in order to breathe some life into what has devolved into bankrupt concepts.
MB Do you think you can get rid of subjectivity? What you’re talking about downplays the importance of the subject’s intention, the subject’s intentional relationship to language as an intimate or personal experience, but subjectivity is really interesting, right?
KG You can’t avoid it. What I choose to appropriate and reframe and distribute all expresses my own subjectivity as much as anything I could possibly write. How could it be otherwise? You go back to Duchamp: every object he chose to appropriate expressed his own sensibility, subjectivity, and taste, hence the success of his approach. It’s both deeply personal and deeply impersonal at the same time. I strive for the same balance.
MB So it’s that kitsch version of subjectivity that gets taught in certain poetry workshops that you want to get rid of. You suggest then that there’s another type of subjectivity that we haven’t actually heard much about so far—it has a different relationship to language or to expression and is maybe coming to the fore now.
KG Well, it’s the programmer’s subjectivity. Christian Bök says that in the future no poet will be able to write without knowing the computer programming language Perl. Bök feels that conceptual writing is just an intermediary step between humans and machines, which will ultimately yield to a robo-poetics, where machines write poetry for other machines, thereby bypassing the human element altogether. And Christian says that since poetry lacks any real readership among humans anyway, let’s let the robots have it. I find humor and irony in what he says, but I think he’s deadly serious.
MB To me there’s a fear of human subjectivity involved in that kind of machine-based expression—I feel it in Christian’s work. At the same time, what makes his writing work is that there’s an incredible amount of pathos to it. It’s there all the more strongly precisely because he denies that it’s there. Humor as well; maybe that’s another thing . . . Watching the YouTube clip of your White House appearance, it was striking how much people were laughing when you were reading the Traffic excerpts. Actually, a lot of your work is funny in that way. It’s involved in humor, but are you trying to be funny? Do you like that people get off on your work through laughter?
KG I don’t like conventional comedy. I find it cloying and manipulative. Instead, I’d prefer the absurdity of Andy Kaufman reading the entirety of The Great Gatsby or the pranks of Candid Camera, Coyle & Sharpe, or Sacha Baron Cohen. To me, these are situationist-like interventions into daily life, very similar to what I try to do with my writing: reframing or disrupting our normal ways of interacting with the quotidian uses of language in order to make us aware of its profundity and beauty. We don’t pay attention to what is right under our noses.
One of the epigraphs for Soliloquy says, “If every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard.” We produce so much language but never stop to quantify it. And this tendency toward linguistic abundance is ratcheted up infinitely in the digital age, when all our media is constructed of language. A photograph today is comprised entirely of language. Just think of what happens when a JPEG arrives in the email improperly as a mess of code instead of as an image. It’s the identical materials with which Shakespeare wrought his sonnets, although in a completely different order. It could be reconfigured back into sensible poetry or even back to a cogent photograph. This is quite radical, the idea that images, films, and sounds are all made up of language.
MB I was thinking about Maurice Blanchot’s book The Infinite Conversation, written back in the 1960s. He begins by writing about exhaustion and says that we’re really too tired at this point to produce master words and master works. The era of work and production is over, so now what are we going to do? On the one hand we’re swimming in this sea of abundance but, on the other, there’s something utterly exhausting about it.
KG You hear this all the time: we’re drowning in the digital deluge. We’re up to our eyeballs in information and we can’t take it anymore. Too many blogs, too many Facebook pages, too much discussion, too many Tweets. But instead of bemoaning what is inevitable, many poets are seeing this condition as an opening, a celebration, a new linguistic terrain, raw materials out of which they’re mining an entirely new literature. If you’re a writer, you have to acknowledge this change in environment; the material with which you’re working is running the entire world. To me, it’s joyous, gluttonous. We’re language hoarders, creating epic projects, mirroring the gargantuan scale of textuality on the Internet.
MB Do you still feel an obligation to work, though? With Day, for example, you talk about the physical labor of transcribing—is it still about the obligation of work or is there something else that replaces work and is more interesting?
KG Day was done over a decade ago. The physical work was part of the piece and my transition from being a gallery artist to a writer, hence the emphasis on process and work. Today, however, I’ve become comfortable enough with just an idea. When I recently redid Day and transcribed the 9/11 copy of the New York Times (I called it The Day), most of that was just swiped off of the Times’s website. Had someone emailed me an entire text file of the day’s newspaper, it would have been fine with me to republish that as a book. But again, I think we spend so much of our time moving information from one place to another—copying, cutting, pasting, cc’ing, downloading, backing up, etcetera—that I begin to see that as a form of writing. I recall seeing a cartoon of a man physically exhausted by downloading X amount of gigabytes. That seemed to sum up how my relationship to work or physical labor has shifted over the years. Or if you look at Christian Bök’s Xenotext—where he encodes a poem into a strand of DNA—it’s an intense amount of work, but all of it is being done by a machine crunching trillions of possibilities in order to write the best poem possible. We will be judged in the future by the machines which we set up more than by the product they produce. Christian’s genius is not in the text—formally, Xenotext will not be a remarkable poem—but rather in the program he wrote to construct the poem. This is conceptual literature.
MB But the OncoMouse or Dolly, the transgenic sheep, is an instantiation of a concept as well. What the machine does will still be a matter of concern.
KG It depends on the field. In genetics, the machine can have real-world ethical results. Poetry and art are laboratories where even unsavory, often unthinkable, ethical ideas can be tested without any real harm. UbuWeb, for example, is an ethical hive, a bee’s nest—
MB —a monster!
KG When artists are held to the same sort of ethical and moral standards that politicians are, it’s a very dangerous situation for art.
MB But art since romanticism has been concerned, in some way, with having an impact on the real world. I agree traditional ethics doesn’t make any sense, but . . .
KG Art’s a-ethical space is its beauty. We need to preserve that—the possibility of behaving very badly in art, because it doesn’t exist anywhere else. I’ve said this elsewhere: If I raised my kids the way I wrote my books I would’ve been thrown in jail a long time ago.
MB Do you compartmentalize the freedom? Is it totally separate from everyday life? With the Internet, there’s this incredible bleed between the screen and reality too, and that’s something that people are playing with, increasingly.
KG Assuming various identities on the web—which would be seen as being fraudulent in “meatspace”—is very healthy. With much less commitment than it takes in meatspace, we can project various personas with mere stokes of a keyboard. In this chat room, I’m a woman; on this blog, I’m a political conservative; in this forum, I’m a middle-aged golfer. And I never get called out for not being authentic or real. On the contrary, I am addressed as “madam” or “you right-wing asshole.” I’ve come to expect that the person I think I’m addressing on the Internet isn’t really “that person.” So, for me, not being “true” to myself, or assuming voices and positions that are not mine, can give me small windows during my day into a freedom in a society that allows me very little. I go back to John Cage, who was an anarchist. People would say things like, John Cage! You’re an anarchist but you pay taxes! And John Cage would respond, Yes, I’m an anarchist, but the only way I can continue to do my work is to pay my taxes. There was a sense of compromise in order to gain a window of freedom. Of course, at that time in the ’70s and ’60s in many places around the world, due to political repression—even today—Cage wouldn’t have been permitted to do his work. So we make our compromises.

Book review: Uncreative Writing

Goldsmith's theories are fascinating, if not entirely convincing

By Stephan Delbos

 Book review: Uncreative Writing
The most appropriate way to review Kenneth Goldsmith's Uncreative Writing, an inspiring, controversial and engaging critical survey-cum-manifesto, would be to simply copy and paste a previous review of the book and claim it as an original. Or perhaps a review of another book, or a chapter from a cookbook.
Goldsmith has made a name for himself as the most visible proponent of a strain of avant-garde American poetry that doesn't seek to reinvent the wheel of what poetry can and should be in the Internet age, but rather to push that wheel into territory that has previously been inhabited by artists.
Trained as a visual artist, Goldsmith, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, has published 10 books of poetry, most recently the trilogy The Weather (2005), Traffic (2007) and Sports (2008), books that consist of transcriptions of radio broadcasts of the weather, traffic and sports reports, respectively. Two previous books work in the same fashion: Soliloquy (2001), a transcription of every word Goldsmith uttered over the course of a week, and Day (2003), a transcription of a complete issue of The New York Times. 
Many poets and readers can - and have - complained that this is not writing at all, harkening back to Truman Capote's famous complaint that Jack Kerouac's work "isn't writing, it's typing." However, those who can suspend their disbelief enough to watch a YouTube video of Goldsmith reading from Traffic at The White House May 11, 2011, will see that this writing - when read aloud at least - is actually quite engaging.
What Goldsmith is promoting, through his own poetry and in Uncreative Writing, is a conceptual approach to poetry that privileges the idea of the project over its actual outcome. As Goldsmith has said on numerous occasions, his books are extremely boring and don't actually need to be read. On the contrary, they can be put down almost immediately and used instead as a launch pad for conversation. For conceptual poets, the materiality of language and the book-as-art-object is brought to the fore, forcing the lyrical "I" and the idea that poetry is about personal expression deep into the background.
For writers who came of age under the aegis of virtually any style of American poetry besides some of the more experimental movements that have come about since the 1970s, including language poetry and visual poetry, the idea that reappropriation should be construed as poetry is anathema. Yet, these ideas are not without precedents, both obvious and subtle. Reappropriation has a rich tradition in Anglophone literature, going back through William Burroughs and Brion Gysin to Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, among others. Similarly, the idea that a poet cannot take full responsibility for the generation of words and ideas has been a fruitful concept for many, from Rilke and his angels, to Yeats and his spirits, to Jack Spicer and his Martians.  
As if this wasn't enough motivation to take Goldsmith's ideas seriously, he is not only a consummate showman, the Andy Warhol of avant-garde American poetry, but he is also intelligent, playful and articulate, qualities clearly evident in Uncreative Writing, an extensive treatise on this type of writing that not only traces the practice of appropriation through a wide range of authors and texts, but suggests a way forward for both writers and teachers of "uncreative writing."
Goldsmith is most intriguing and most convincing in his discussion of how the Internet has - or should have - modified the way we think about language. By creating a virtual reality that is essentially built on language through the use of programming codes, as well as through the proliferation of texts made possible through online publishing, the Internet has essentially surrounded us with language, changing the way we think about it in relation to the world around us and changing the way poets should work with words.
In the chapter "Toward a Poetics of Hyperrealism," Goldsmith compares two poems "warning us of the pitfalls of consumerism": Tony Hoagland's "At the Galleria Shopping Mall," an essentially traditional narrative poem about shopping, and a poem by Robert Fitterman, "Directory," which "is simply a directory from an unnamed mall." Fitterman's poem is finer, Goldsmith claims, because "by doing very little, Fitterman has actually given us a more realistic experience than Hoagland, without having to resort to sermonizing to convince us of his point."
Here, Goldsmith takes for granted that "traditional" poems are of value only for their ability to replicate experience, when in fact "the pleasure of the text," to use Roland Barthes' phrase, lies beyond the moral a poem may or may not provide, as well as the veracity of the experience it creates. It lies, at least partially, in the language and tropes the poet employs.
Elsewhere, Goldsmith writes "our notion of genius - a romantic isolated figure - is outdated." But just how different is the figure of the "uncreative writer?" Goldsmith essentially posits that language has become an experience of its own, as much a part of everyday life as any other sensation. Put that way, his ideas are not as radical as they at first appear. Rather than positing the poet as an articulate individual in dialogue with nature - as was the case with Romantic poets - Goldsmith suggests the poet in the 21st century should be an individual in dialogue with language.  
Goldsmith goes on to state that conceptual poetry is "populist" because it utilizes the language of commerce, the language of news, the language of everyday life, whereas traditional poetic language is not spoken language, and is, as Robert Lowell wrote, "heightened from life,/ yet paralyzed by fact." But none of this can ignore the fact that creating unreadable books is essentially creating museum pieces. Everyone can recognize that Duchamp's toilet is a toilet, but no one can actually urinate in it. Conceptual poetry and art may be in one sense populist, but it is not utilitarian.
Goldsmith's ideas are not altogether convincing - at some moments, one can almost hear him grinning beneath his stridency, wondering 'I wonder if I'll be able to get away with this?' After all, Andy Warhol, one of Goldsmith's primary inspirations, said "art is what you can get away with." Regardless, Goldsmith is an articulate spokesman for a truly fascinating movement of American poetry that has gained too much momentum to ignore.
The urge to be creative is fundamentally human and the concept of individual genius dies hard. Whether uncreative writing will ever be more than a fascinating sideshow remains to be seen.

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