Notes on Safe Conceptualisms
[The following observations were presented at Princeton University on April 26th, 2013, for the symposium “Lament of the Makers: Conceptualism and Poetic Freedom.” I’ve revised a small bit and added some endnotes. The other panelists were Timothy Donnelly, Jena Osman, Monica de la Torre, and Vanessa Place (who gave the keynote address). Roy Scranton and Jeff Dolven, both of the Princeton English Department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Program, acted as moderators. --Kent Johnson]
~~ In 1968, the poet and conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers, having some years prior encased in plaster dozens of copies of his last book of verse, led a group of cultural activists into the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels, declaring it an autonomous zone. They read statements and hung banners, denouncing the complicities of high institutions of culture in larger networks of power and instrumentalization. The cops were called. (How like our own recent Croatoan Poetic Cell, at the Poetry Foundation, where the cops were sent in on peacefully protesting poets, too.) 1 Broodthaers, member of a revolutionary socialist organization, went on to extend powerfully his stance of institutional critique with multiple, unfolding installations of his faux and satirical Musée de Art Moderne. Forty-five years later, in ironic illustration of how poetry is indeed 50 years behind critical art as it was then, the Conceptual poet and artist Kenneth Goldsmith, on record as believing in the “revolutionary” potential of Wall Street, is appointed Poet Laureate of the demonstrably real Museum of Modern Art, the most powerful institution of the current art world and market, whose links to corporate capital are indivisible from its cultural operations. Goldsmith announces a series of “guerrilla readings,” featuring apparently insurgent poets from Charles Bernstein to Rick Moody (albeit whose guerrilla status is approved by MoMA’s Board—the Museum Guards are briefed). Goldsmith also announces his opening Laureateship lecture, its subtitle “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution,” the same title of a talk he presented at the Poetry Foundation, two weeks after the PF sent the Chicago cops on the young Croatoan commandoes. His tenure ends with a wine-and-cheese reading by numerous post-avant poets who pose for perfectly non-ironic photos in front of the Warhols and Judds. Jacket2 runs a feature article, celebrating the event.
~~Keston Sutherland, one of England’s leading radical poets, in an email to the UK Poetry List, points out the following (shared here with his permission):
But not only could Goldsmith not have made that work [a hypothetical version of Soliloquy transcribing the utterances of a homeless subject, KJ], but he could not accept it as a proper "conceptual" work in his sense either, because a work like that which (in Adorno's phrase) gives a voice to suffering cannot at the same time "avoid subjectivity". The thought experiment is highly instructive. It makes clear what is actually at stake in the demand for a completely anti-subjective art. Together with all the bits, postures and aspects of the subject that have been positively identified for the chop (Romanticism, the lyric ego, "expression", "originality" etc.), it also does away with suffering. Its brand identity is painless art for bored consumers. It's an ok joke if you are an infinitely mobile enough subject who is intimate with the specific type of boredom being outlined, the boredom of going on exhausting options that are all transcendently affordable and within reach.
~~It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Conceptual poetry in principle. Conceptual poetry can be very good! When conceptual interventions emerge as resistant expression and proceed in a praxis of cultural and political critique (as in the case of Berlin Dada and the Situationists, or late-Soviet, 1980s Chilean, recent Chinese conceptualism, and others), it can be revolutionary, even, with deep social effects. The problem is not the general anti-aesthetic. Forms and modes in poetry are not immanently this or that in regards their political meanings, as some teleologically minded post-avantists have had it.2 Modes and forms are charged and determined by choices of positioning, register, and use. Their character can range--and transmute over time--from radically critical, to complacently neutral, to nihilistically complicit. In the last case, this might include when, in line with Fredric Jameson’s notion of the “hysterical sublime,” neo-avant gestures end up in cynical embrace and quasi-replication of the simulacral, serial logic of commodities under global capital. As in Pop, Jameson has proposed; or as in its quick descent into unambiguous commodity art, with artists like Hirst or Koons (both of whom Goldsmith has extolled, incidentally), or as in the avowedly “disinterested,” blank registers of mainline Conceptual writing--arguably more poetry’s belated Pop moment, than its post-Conceptualist one… Thus enacting and validating, at levels of “High Art,” the very serialization of subjective experience on which the Culture Industry feeds…3
~~Russian conceptualism was engaging in the forgery, theft, plagiarism, appropriation, and falsification of ideological imagery as early as the 1970s, when the first-gen Conpo writers--if I may use that shorthand--were barely in junior high.4 Marjorie Perloff has claimed that samizdat Conceptualism doesn’t count because it’s too tied, in its ideological critique, to “psychological depth,” very different, she insists, from the erasures of any subjective affect in U.S. ConPo. Craig Dworkin, in his introductory essay to Against Expression: an Anthology of Conceptual Writing, parrots the dismissal. The tones of such “we came first” claims of unoriginality couldn’t be richer, given the originality anxiety they betray. As I’ve just suggested, they really betray something more substantial: the rejection of a poetic practice that is truly consequent with ideological and institutional critique. Instead of a commitment to satire and parody, hallmarks of the historical avant-garde’s negative aesthetic, we have, in U.S. ConPo, a proudly recondite, “disinterested,” take-it-as-you-will pastiche.5
~~ Goldsmith is fond of poaching Benjamin to make the analogy that the computer is now to writing what photography was to painting. But it’s a false comparison, because what the camera helped to do for painting, in the main, is push it further away from the finer representational capacities of the camera; Conpo, of course, advocates a poetics that decidedly embraces the representational, recycling dynamics of the camera/Internet, analogously mimicking its protocols, forms, and effects. It’s as if, following the outlines of Goldsmith’s analogy, Conceptual writing would be like the most vanguard painting in the early 20th century rushing to slavishly create something like a delayed “Daguerreotype Super-realism.” Goldsmith’s trusty trope, so central to his manifesto-theory, is frankly bogus, a kind of wacky category mistake. On this particular matter, at least, especially given that Conceptual writing supposedly works by way of allegory, Goldsmith really should go back to the theoretical dark room.6
~~Returning to the subject of museums, though: It’s the Academy that is ConPo’s real MoMA. Of course, not just for the Conceptualist faction! The Academy has been our general “post-avant” situation for a while, and we’re pretty much all in it, in some measure or other. Drawing from the great art critic Benjamin Buchloh, it wouldn’t hurt to ask some questions a bit more insistently than, I think fair to say, we’ve tended to so far: What are the longer-term ramifications of the Academic climate for so-called “oppositional” poetry? What about the discourses (teaching, theorizing, historicizing) that compose its practices, as well as their reception (their criticism, archiving, ranking, distribution, which is to say, their reinscription). To what extent might we begin to see the Academy as a normalizing, disciplining habitus of avant poetry’s historically agonistic dispositions, and with what long-view consequences for its dissident articulations? It’s not that the Academy is innately bad or naturally incommensurate to poetry’s spirit. Thank goodness for scholars, because things are more complicated than ever, and we need them urgently. But what we’re talking about is an unprecedented institutionalization of “oppositional” poetics, where once-vanguard, culturally resonant practices (think the 50s, 60s, even 70s) are now expertly adapted to, thoroughly legitimated by, and safely meshed with the protocols of an insular, hyper-professionalized surround. Given that the museum--once an essential element of the enlightenment culture of the bourgeois public sphere--has become, in the field of contemporary art, a machine for the constant dissemination of “vanguard” art commodities, can we speculate that the Academy, at least in regards its most elite programs, is quickly becoming a species of machine for the reproduction of specialty concept goods for a niche market within the field of innovative poetries, much the haute-culture capture Broodthaers had set out to expose? 7
~~That said, poetry is resistant to any easy theoretical reduction of its operations and forms to larger structures, especially historical ones. Even the poetry-loving Marx was confounded. Perhaps the most famous critical instance for poetry of a materialist all-over-ism in recent memory is Jameson’s attempt to frame, in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the prosodic energies of Bob Perleman’s poem “China” (and by implication Language writing broadly) as representative, in their “schizophrenic disjunctions,” of the global operations of late capital. His analysis is controversial. U.S. ConPo, however, may lend itself much more aptly to such quasi-reflectionist approaches as Jameson’s cited above, readymade, as it were, for readings that would frame particular practices as ideologically consonant with cultural, technological, and economic substrates.8 Conceptual writers largely do this work for us in their programmatic statements. Parallel to consigning all verse outside their current to the lyrical junk shop, they are perfectly candid about their writing’s functionality as a sub-relay node for the very kinds of empty, disembodied, simulacral effects that Jameson once dismissed (not convincingly, in my view) as generating features of Language poetry. After all, the Conceptual authors bluntly claim as mission the recycling and managing of zero-affect boring information! Langpo, at least, claimed its poetics were those of analysis, critique, and resistance to such late-capitalist ideology; Conpo, on the other hand, replicates the cultural effluvia it poaches with little trace whatsoever, really, of any purposeful détournement, and with a High Modernist paring of the fingernails about it all. As Vanessa Place has said, Conceptual writing maintains an attitude of “disinterest” towards what she calls the “dumb” meaning of the political. To Langpos who once claimed a mission of institutional and social critique we now have Conpos openly wallowing in its exhaustion: a mission now stood on its purported Marxian head, purged and retooled for ready framing and exhibit in the highest cultural quarters.
Welcome to the new right-wing of the poetic “avant-garde.”
1. For some of the discussion around the CPC action at the Poetry Foundation, see this conversation between Brooks Johnson and Linh Dinh, at Lana Turner blog, http://www.lanaturnerjournal.com/blog/linhdinhbrooksjohnson; and this feature article at Salon.com by Jeremy Axelrod, http://www.salon.com/2011/11/13/its_time_to_occupy_poetry/
2. As in the early heroic stage of Language poetry, for prominent instance, and whose “more advanced than thou” dispositions continue to echo in much U.S. experimental writing—most notably, no question, in the theatrically arrogant “avant-garde” proclamations of Conceptual poetry. But in this regard, there is a poignant, anachronistic twist: the ConPo poets have taken the chassis of textual indeterminacy and radical co-production that emerges from the Langpo shop, and grafted onto that post-structural undercarriage a weighty, re-chromed body of High Modernist autonomy aesthetics. Indeed, at the Princeton symposium, during the discussion session, Place very solemnly acknowledged that her oft-stated commitment to authorial attitudes of “disinterest” comes “directly out of Kant.” Of course, given the essential linkage of authorial display to the group’s general production, one might understand this “funny-car” fusion as an inescapable philosophical corollary. Though not that Kant is to blame…
3. More like Pop than Conceptual art, too, as the latter current was guided by a spirit of determined Institutional Critique (e.g. Broodthaers, Asher, Buren, Haacke, Rosler, etc.)
4. It’s of note that the Moscow Conceptualists (Prigov and others) often employed strategies of authorial dissimulation, replication, and heteronomy-- subversive forms entirely beyond the paratextual frame, it seems, of the safe and protocoled staging of self-authorship in U.S. Conceptual writing.
5. The distinction between parody and pastiche (and the different political charges the modes carry in potential) has been made by Fredric Jameson, in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Peter Bürger, in Theory of the Avant-Garde, makes the case, too.
6. As well, on the matter of theoretical “consistency,” Goldsmith has frequently claimed that ConPo represents a kind of “ecological,” “recycling” alternative to the surfeit wastage of conventional poetic discharge. Most recently, however, he has urged the “printing out of the Internet,” a proposal, however kooky, that would seem to put his environmental ethos (so much for the trees!) in brackets, to say the least.
7. In this regard, see also note #2. The spectacularization of author-function dynamics in ConPo, I’d submit, must be understood in broader institutional context of the deepening professional dependency of the “post-avant.” Conventional, verifiable authority is sociologically prerequisite, a virtual statute in our present Academic conjuncture.
8. Curiously, Place referred in her talk to “lyric poetry” as “the new Gold Standard.” As I recall, I asked the opening question after she was done. I asked her what exactly she meant by “lyric poetry,” wondering if she was dismissing the whole, fractal complexity of a tradition that proceeds, at least, from Archilochus and Sappho forward. She replied something to the effect that no, she didn’t mean “all lyric poetry.” I then commented that we should also be careful about too loosely using economic metaphors. In fact, I proposed that it’s Conceptual poetry that may best lend itself to being likened to a Gold Standard poetics, given that the simulacra of its currency are so decisively tied to a validating and valuing Original. I further proposed that the concept of “heavy leveraging” could also be suggestively applied to ConPo poetics, though I believe the discussion took another turn at that point. Place’s presentation, quite impressive in its way, for sure, can be read here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2013/04/i-is-not-a-subject-part-1-of-5/