Everybody’s a genius

Conceptual writing and community

In an apartment studio performance from 1986, Russian conceptualist writer and artist Dmitri Prigov greets the prominent Moscow artists and writers in attendance: “Here we have gathered again. There’s Tarasov, and here I stand. Kabakov is somewhere there, and there’s Chuikov. […] And there are other people sitting and standing — they are my heroes! Heroes of Pushkin! Of Lermontov, of Tchaikovsky!”[1] In a poem written six years earlier, Prigov also clearly demarcates both a community and individual talents:

An American is an enemy

 An Englishman is also an enemy

 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 Pushkin is a pure genius

 Prigov is also a genius.[2]


Vanessa Place echoes Prigov’s approach in her poem “Prigov is a genius,” which uses the roster of the Academy of American Poets. Here’s a small sampling:

Wanda Coleman is a genius.

 Samuel Taylor Coleridge is also a genius.

 Billy Collins is a genius.

 Martha Collins is a genius.

 Tony Connor is a genius.

 Nicole Cooley is a genius.

 Jane Cooper is a genius.

 Alfred Corn is a genius.

 Gregory Corso is a genius.

 Jayne Cortez is a genius.

 William Cowper is a genius.

 Hart Crane is a genius.

 Robert Creeley is a genius.[3]

 

Prigov and Place describe artistic communities constructed of individual talents, but they also eviscerate the notion of community. Both Prigov and Place produce this anti-community community through repetition. Prigov’s alphabetical list of rules for the Soviet citizen defines the national community through collective enemies and individual geniuses. His hailing of his friends as heroes ties nonconformist Russian artists to Tchaikovsky, the national composer, and Pushkin, the national poet. National community and artistic community are not opposed, but equated. Echoing Prigov, Place links an international aesthetic community of conceptual writing to a national register of officially recognized poetic geniuses. She performs the construction of an artistic community as a shout-out –– as the repetitive naming of individual talents.

Conceptual writing’s representation of community is very different from that to which the title of this conference alludes. The title, I take it, echoes the now almost two-decade-old Buffalo Poetics List discussion of “community and the individual talent” and Charles Bernstein’s subsequent essay of the same name in a special issue of diacritics on poetry and community.[4] That discussion in the 1990s can be seen as an extension of Language writing’s participation in the late twentieth-century renegotiation of community in the United States (and the West at large), which was a response to the pressures for multiculturalist communities and the backlash against such inclusiveness.[5]

Language writers sought to question and reform conceptions of individuals and collectives that were often taken for granted. We see this in Bernstein’s term ideolects, with its fusion of collective ideology and individual idiolect, and in his many other essays on the problems with both individual and collective identities and the possibilities of new forms of uncommunity or “commonness in partiality” –– from “The Conspiracy of Us” to the “Poetics of the Americas.”[6] Lyn Hejinian undertakes a similar search for new models of community in her engagement with Russia. In “The Person and Description,” for instance, she writes: “Subjectivity is not the basis for being a Russian person. ‘Our independent separate singularity can hardly be spoken of, but,’ Arkadii said, ‘many people wish it.’ ‘You know,’ I said, ‘many of us wish to overcome it. We think that if we can surpass or supersede the individual self we can achieve a community.’”[7] Bruce Andrews likewise envisaged “Language-centered work” as, in his words, “a creation of a community and of a world-view by once-divided-but-now-fused Reader and Writer.”[8] And in their manifesto, Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, and Barrett Watten insisted, “If there has been one premise of our group that approaches the status of a first principle, it has been … the reciprocity of practice implied by a community of writers who read each other’s work.”[9] For all their concern for the oppressiveness of fixed group identity, Language writers’ positive vision of poetry communities differs markedly from the conceptual mode. If, for Bernstein in the late 1970s, “every group has the same possibility for insularity as each individual,” conceptual writing takes this possibility to be a certainty and proceeds from there.[10] Conceptual writing would seem then to have little to do with a conference that looks back to Language writing’s more hopeful negotiations of community.

Yet the repetition now of the terms of that debate, the reframing of such early digital communities as the Poetics List in today’s Web 2.0 world, and the echoing of Eliot’s almost century-old essay also seem entirely to the point of the appropriative and repetitive, or iterative, practices of conceptual writing and its very different model of community. Community enters conceptual writings, first, in the iterations of empty markers or signs of community (what I term the Facebook “like” effect); second, in the self-construction of an artistic community through the rhetoric of individual talent (the “shout-out” effect); and third, through relation to tradition (the “Eliot” effect). Together these iterative modes constitute the conceptual anti-community that gives unity to the statements “An American is an enemy” and “Prigov is a genius.”


1. The like effect

Conceptual writers like Kenneth Goldsmith, Robert Fitterman, and Vanessa Place strongly foreground the empty rhetorical modes of community. They rigorously dismantle positive notions of community by highlighting how imagined communities are constituted through banal acts of liking, from sports and fast food restaurants to popular song that, as in the Facebook model, are also acts of repetition.

Goldsmith cites the shared textual material whereby imagined communities of New Yorkers or Americans are constructed through their liking of sport.[11] Extending this line, Rob Fitterman’s Metropolis cites the empty signifiers of imagined communities to be found in shopping malls and fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.[12] The point is emphasized in his collections of online food reviews, in which the reviewers construct a community out of their common love of restaurants such as Panda Express.[13] Caroline Bergvall interrogates the same construction of a mass community through her own memory of lines from popular songs involving sex.[14] Place’s appropriation of online material with the question “what does this say about me?” foregrounds the construction of mass communities and individuals based on repeated acts of likeness and liking.[15] In Place’s words, “we are of an age that understands corporations are people too and poetry is the stuff of placards. Or vice versa.”[16]

This is a world away from the positive vision of community articulated by writers like Hejinian. Indeed, Place describes her practice as an attack on the utopian view of collaboration, and by extension on community.[17] In the conceptual anti-community, collective identity is constructed through the repetition of material on the model of an algorithmic system, or –– as in Christian Bök’s self-replicating The Xenotext Experiment –– a virus.[18]


2. The shout-out effect

Conceptual writers also stress the construction and marketing of literary and artistic communities –– including their own –– through what we might call the poetics of the shout-out. I have already mentioned Prigov’s shout-out to the artists in attendance at a performance in Moscow, a shout-out that became an integral part of the published poem. I have also mentioned Place’s appropriation of this move. Place takes up the shout-out in a different form in her focus on the blurb –– a subgenre of the shout-out –– in her Tragodía trilogy. Alluding perhaps to the controversy over the interpretation of Statement of Facts at the Rethinking Poetics conference, Place subjects the blurbs to deletions over the course of the trilogy, inverting their meaning and thus stressing that in the blurb genre liking takes precedence over meaning.[19] Craig Dworkin performs a form of shout-out in his listing of books in his library, and those that he wishes were in his library, in The Perverse Library.[20] Goldsmith presents the New York art community as a field of individual self-promotion in Soliloquy, his transcription of every word he said for a week.[21] Bernstein was already in the late 1970s exploring the shout-out effect through stock phrases such as “the ‘heroic’ work” of “a few ‘men’” or “I … want to take this opportunity to thank everyone.”[22] But whereas Bernstein’s phrases were expressly ironic and frequently surrounded by quotation marks, conceptual writing presents the possibility that there is no alternative to the shout-out model of artistic community.

The Web 2.0 world is of course another context for the shout-out model of community. Vanessa Place has over 3,000 friends on Facebook. We can see Place’s work on Facebook as an extension of the shout-out mode of community construction. Facebook is perfectly suited to the conceptual mode of community. Much of what is published on Facebook involves community construction through the sharing and liking of existing texts, videos, and images. But Place’s Facebook page also presents community as the place where a person’s “individual talent” is constructed through a network of recognition. Place writes: “I am because and as my facebook friends know me.”[23] In the passage Place echoes here, Gertrude Stein opposes recognition and identity to the working artist’s entity and creative genius: “Identity is recognition … I am I because my little dog knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognizing that he knows, that is what destroys creation.”[24] Yet Stein also took pleasure in her position as celebrity, as identity — the genius who “is an ideal consumer as well as an ideal commodity, never sullied by anything resembling use value.”[25] Place collapses this tension in Stein’s work, embracing identity as the source of her writing and genius. Or as she puts it elsewhere: “Facebook is not a metaphor. It is, and it is likeness. I like this … 25 random things about me, calculated algorithmically. So I can interface with more texts like me.”[26] Place’s view of the individual and community invokes the science of statistical community detection, the identification of nodes of concentrated network activity, places where “texts like me” group.[27]

Conceptual writing itself could not exist without the notion of a community of individual talents. Here the familiar dynamics of communal literary alliances play out, where various forms of conceptual writing compete in the marketplace (Against Expression vs. I’ll Drown My Book), and various “individual talents” within the group trade on their points of difference –– Place’s presentation of hot material in a cool container vs. Dworkin’s material of scientific and linguistic description in works like Fact and Parse.[28] Yet even here, there is a contrast with Language writing. While the attacks on Language writing in the mid-1980s elicited a serious collective response in the form of a manifesto, Goldsmith chose to post Johanna Drucker’s piece on the end of conceptualism under the “obituaries” section of the Harriet Blog, immediately situating the attack and defense of conceptualism within a humorous, simulated realm of avant-garde community contestation.[29] When, in that piece, Drucker describes conceptual writing’s institutionalization as its death, she projects a vision of the avant-garde community as oppositional, a vision that Language writing still shared, but that is antithetical to conceptual writing.


3. The Eliot effect

If the conceptual model of community is in some ways antithetical to Language writing, it is not, appropriately enough, entirely original. Indeed the community, or anti-community, poetics of the shout-out also involves a turning to tradition, and in this respect returns me to that other essay title echoed in the name of the conference: Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

Jacob Edmond and Joshua Kotin at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

While in that essay Eliot insists, “novelty is better than repetition,” his stress on “depersonalization” through tradition, whereby “art may be said to approach the condition of science,” anticipates the depersonalization through citation and copying in conceptual writing and the scientific orientation of conceptual works like Dworkin’s Fact, with its listing of its chemical components, or Bök’s The Xenotext Experiment. In Simon Morris’s bodily occupation of the tradition in his retyping of On the Road, Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head, we might detect an echo of Eliot’s “historical sense [that] compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling [of] the whole of the literature of Europe” –– or elsewhere, the “mind of Europe.”[30] Eliot’s insistence on making the past present is extended by Prigov’s extensive verbatim or near-verbatim reproductions of Pushkin’s texts, especially the opening lines of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.[31] Other examples include Place’s white-out of Gone with the Wind, her reproduction and detourning of classic feminist writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, and Goldsmith’s singing of texts by Benjamin, Derrida, Barthes, and others.[32]

Goldsmith’s reading at the White House illustrates the conceptual approach to community, tradition, and the individual talent. He began with Walt Whitman’s 1856 poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” moved to Hart Crane’s 1930 work “To Brooklyn Bridge,” and concluded with excerpts from his 2007 book Traffic.[33] He might equally have read from Stein, who stressed her genius by highlighting her invitation to tea at the White House. Like Stein, Goldsmith stresses the relationship between genius and national recognition. Through his individual talent, he situates himself in a US poetic and national community. Whether through a “like” button or citation from a past master, conceptual writing performs the construction of community as a shout-out to individual talents: Walt Whitman is a genius, Hart Crane is a genius, Kenneth Goldsmith is a genius.

One further text that the title of this conference echoes is Marjorie Perloff’s “Avant-Garde Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In that essay, Perloff concludes that what matters finally “is less the specific avant-garde ‘tradition’ … than the ‘individual talent’” –– at least in the case of the genius Charles Bernstein.[34] But what Perloff leaves out is the key role that imaginings of community or anti-community play in the individual talents of various groups including, in contrasting ways, Language writing and conceptual writing. Conceptual writing in particular emphasizes the interrelationship between the construction of individual talents and poetry communities. It makes the naming of individual talents the basis for constructing artistic communities, and communities the basis for constructing individual talents.

This is also why national communities matter to poetry even in the apparently placeless world of the Internet. And it is why the inclusions and exclusions of poetry communities also matter –– even those poetry communities such as Language writing that question the very nature of community, or those like conceptual writing that seem to eviscerate it. Only through attention to the construction of communities and their inclusions and exclusions can we see, for example, how the exclusion of Prigov from Anglophone conversations about conceptual writing reinforces the image of conceptual writing as a US export and so US claims to leadership of the international community.[35]

In other words: an American is an enemy. Dmitri Prigov is a genius. Vanessa Place is a genius. Craig Dworkin is also a genius. Charles Bernstein is a genius. Bob Perelman is a genius. Maria Damon is a genius. Steve Yao is also a genius. Al Filreis is a genius. Alexander Pushkin is a genius. Katie Price is a genius. William Shakespeare is a genius. Jonathan Fedors is a genius. Gertrude Stein is also a genius. And all you others out there –– you too are geniuses. Or, to conclude, please like this essay.

 


 

1. Dmitri Prigov and Vladimir Tarasov, performance of Azbuka 49 in Kabakov’s studio, 1986, DVD, private collection. The published version of this poem also includes this greeting, though in a modified form.

2. Prigov, Azbuka 1 in Azbuki.

3. Vanessa Place, “Prigov Is a Genius,” manuscript, emailed to the author on December 1, 2011.

4. Charles Bernstein, “Community and the Individual Talent,” diacritics 26, no. 3–4 (1996): 176–95; Bernstein, “Community and the Individual Talent,” email to the SUNY Buffalo Poetics List, February 20, 1994, archived here.

5. See, for example, Charles Taylor’s characterization of the tension between migrant and minority groups’ increasingly assertive demands for recognition of their identities and the exclusionary and normative models of Western democratic communities. Charles Taylor, “No Community, No Democracy, Part II,” The Responsive Community 14, no. 1 (Winter 2003/2004): 15–25.

6. Bernstein, “The Conspiracy of ‘Us,’” in Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1986), 343–47. Originally published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 8 (June 1979): n.p. Facsimile available online; Bernstein, “Poetics of the Americas,” Modernism/Modernity 3, no. 3 (1996): 1–23. On ideolect, see also Bernstein, Bob Perelman, Jonathan Monroe, and Ann Lauterbach, “Poetry, Community, Movement: A Conversation,” diacritics 26, nos. 3–4 (1996): 205–7, 210; Matthew Hart, “Taking the Unity out of Community,” Mantis 1 (2000); and Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 168–71.

7. Michael Davidson, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten, Leningrad: American Writers in the Soviet Union (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991), 34 (emphasis in the original).

8. Bruce Andrews, “Text and Context,” Open Letter 3, no. 7 (Summer 1977): 82.

9. Silliman, Carla Harryman, Hejinian, Steve Benson, Perelman, and Watten, “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto,” Social Text nos. 19/20 (Autumn 1988): 271.

10. Bernstein, “The Conspiracy of ‘Us,’” 343.

11. Kenneth Goldsmith, Sports (Los Angeles: Make Now, 2008).

12. Robert Fitterman, Metropolis 16–29 (Toronto: Coach House, 2002), 8–12.

13. Fitterman, Sprawl: Metropolis 30A (Los Angeles: Make Now, 2010), 64–67.

14. Caroline Bergvall, “Wired Madeleine (1DJ2MANY),” in Middling English (Highfield, UK: John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton, 2010), 22–26. Audio version and images from the installation version available online.

15. Place, “What Does This Say about Me?,” reading at Birkbeck College, University of London, September 24, 2011. Place likes the phrase enough to appropriate it in a discussion of conceptual writing: “A mirror only works insofar as I recognize or refuse to recognize myself reflected in it — like poetry, it answers the question ‘what does this say about me?’” “Vanessa Place: Poetry and the Conceptualist Period,” interview by Andrea Quaid, Bomblog, March 5, 2012.

16. Place, “Poetry Is Dead, I Killed It,” Harriet, April 5, 2012.

17. In September 2011, when I told her about the conference at which this paper was to be presented, Place expressed her disgust at the notion of poetry communities. See also Place’s attack on collaboration in experimental poetry in Place, “A Poetics of Radical Evil,” Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion 3 (2010): 97–99.

18. Christian Bök, “The Xenotext Experiment,” Scripted: A Journal of Law, Technology, and Society 5, no. 2 (2008): 227–31. Also available online.

19. In her report on the Rethinking Poetics conference held at Columbia University, June 11–13, 2010, Stephanie Young writes: “When Marjorie Perloff makes the comment, during a formalist reading of Vanessa Place’s forthcoming Statement of Facts, that the rape victims in the book are ‘at least as bad as or worse than the rapists’ there’s this wave of faces in reaction throughout the room.” See “Repoport.” For responses to the report, including a reply from Perloff, see here.. Place reframes Kim Rosenfeld’s blurb (itself the product of appropriation) for Statement of Facts so that instead of saying Place’s work opposes Judge Gilbert Alston’s infamous statement that “A whore is a whore is a whore,” Rosenfeld’s blurb ends up saying that Place’s work affirms Judge Alston’s view. Compare the inside blurbs for Place, Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts (Los Angeles: Blanc, 2010) and Tragodía 3: Argument (Los Angeles: Blanc, 2011).

20. Craig Dworkin, The Perverse Library (York, UK: Information as Material, 2010).

21. Goldsmith, Soliloquy (New York: Granary, 2001).

22. Bernstein, “The Conspiracy of ‘Us,’” 346

23. Place, “The Case for Conceptualism,” Revista Laboratorio 5 (2011).

24. Gertrude Stein, What Are Masterpieces? (New York: Pitnam, 1970), 84–85.

25. Perelman, The Trouble with Genius (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 167.

26. Place, “The Death of the Text: Kenneth Goldsmith at the White House,” Harriet, May 19, 2011.

27. For an example of the burgeoning use of mathematical models for detecting communities, see M. Girvan and M. E. Newman, “Community Structure in Social and Biological Networks,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99, no. 12 (2002): 7821–26.

28. Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, eds., Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011); Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Place, eds., I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (Los Angeles: Les Figues, 2012); Craig Dworkin, Parse (Berkeley: Atelos Press, 2008); Craig Dworkin, “Fact,” Poetry 194, no. 4 (July/August 2009): 338.

29. Silliman et al., “Aesthetic Tendency”; Johanna Drucker, “Conceptual Writing Was Intriguing and Provocative,” Harriet Blog, reprinted from the Poetry Project Newsletter (April/May 2012).

30. Simon Morris, Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head (York, UK: Information as Material, 2010); T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in The Sacred Wood, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1928), 49, 51.

31. Among many possible examples, see Dmitri Prigov, Faksimilʹnoe vosproizvedenie samodelʹnoi knigi Dmitriia Aleksandrovicha Prigova ‘Evgenii Onegin Pushkina’ s risunkami na poliach raboty Aleksandra Florenskogo (Facsimile reproduction of Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Prigov’s self-made book “Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin” with drawings on the margins of the work by Aleksandr Florenskii) (St. Petersburg: Mit’kilibris; Krasnyi matros, 1998).

32. Vanessa Place, “White Out,” Greenwich Cross-Genre Festival, Greenwich University, London, July 14–16, 2010, video available online; Place, The Father and Childhood (Buffalo, NY: P-Queue Editions, 2011); Kenneth Goldsmith, Kenneth Goldsmith Sings Theory, recorded at the WFMU studios, Jersey City, New Jersey, 2006. Available on PennSound.

33. Goldsmith, “Kenneth Goldsmith Reads Poetry at White House Poetry Night.”

34. Perloff, “Avant-Garde Tradition and the Individual Talent: The Case of Language Poetry,” Revue française d’études américaines 103 (2005): 139.

35. On the importance of the US imperialist position to US conceptual writing, see Place, “Global Conceptualisms: I Am American,” UbuWeb, 6 June 2012.