A fool for a lawyer or a client

On Christian Bök

Note: above, a video of Christian Bök giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Vanessa Place responds to Bök’s talk in the essay that follows. 


Something like that. The point is that one should never defend oneself against one’s critics. One’s critics are always right. They may be knee-deep in it, but they are always right. Right, though, about what? I take no issue with Stephen Collis’s critique of Conceptualism, as I understand it via Christian Bök’s rejoinder, with which I also refuse to quarrel. But what, my darlings, are we quarreling for? Or over, or, better yet, around? It seems to me — which is a lovely feminine position to take — so insular, so subjective, and so easily dismissed, that there is a structural engagement at stake that is rather more than either Collis or Bök overtly bargains for. Because, like all card games, the big money is in the back. Bök is right, of course, that Conceptualism is famously thievish in a Robin Hood sort of way — and Collis is right, naturally, that there is a certain amount of personal frisson that accrues and is capitalized upon in this form of thieving. Our outfits are uniformly fabulous, the goods are there for the getting, and the dollops of personal celebrity sufficiently intoxicating/infuriating for everyone’s fun. But, again, my pets, never look at the right hand when the cards are being shuffled. What’s missed in this game is the questioning of its precepts: that dialectic is an apt description of the contemporary engagement, that there is an alternative Western political subject, or could be any aesthetic expression that could rightly trumpet itself from beyond the walls of its birthplace. Moreover, and more to the point (and we do so love a good sharp point), to assert a signification that is coincident with authorship is the very structure of all that prevails. In other words (another point of adoration, for what’s authorship if not a word count), to argue about this interpretation or that interpretation as being the better interpretation is a sucker’s game: the real money is in refusing to interpret. To be a lousy signifier, one that simply refuses to work properly, to hold the position of the one who knows or knows better, who fails to spin the sign just so you will think this or that or the other is far more unsettling to the contemporary mind than the business as usual of convincing this one or that one that there is this or that notion to be derived from the work or worker, like a wee ingot of meaning, and once we can easily reduce either work or worker to their proper Sein, we need do no more than trundle along, celebrating or condemning as we see fit. And we do see in fits, that much is for certain. For the proper move today is no longer dialectical but trilectical: we live lives that are as constituted in our fits of self-regard, which is always infused with the tisane of the social, and the social always mediated, and the mediation, always interlarded with the joie de suivre of current capital. And current capital capitalizes on the widget-one as the common unit of production and consumption. Put another way, social media trades on your tirades, on you representing yourself, or at least looking nice for the camera in your phone. Otherwise its advertisers cannot sell you stuff or sell your stuff to its advertisers. We happily participate in this, even and including excoriations of capitalism on social media; it then knows to pimp Verso books and Benjamin bifocals, or Esty knick-knackery and PETA promotions versus Tory tea cozies and tech stock pick primers. It does not particularly care, nor do I. I am happy to dress for the evening, to play and play along in my suspicion that interpretation is, like beauty, in the sockets of the beholder, that it will be, like history, written and rewritten to endless turns of edification and renunciation, and that no one will be forever the wiser, though we will all be sufficiently entertained. To my delight, the constant collaboration between those who know and those who know better plays itself out like an endless bad date or doomed romance, with the other sweetly hissing, “You see, I know you better than you know yourself.” To say that Conceptualism is politically noxious mistakes the smell of burning flesh for the flesh that is burning: but tell me again, my piglets, what I am supposed to think and how you would have me be. That will make all the difference that we can possibly stand. Which may be the promise of Conceptualism.