Religion, the surreal, and the neobaroque
Across a long, extraordinarily prolific career, Cuban poet José Kozer (born in Havana, 1940) is remarkable for the consistency of his style. His work has been viewed as part of the Latin American neobaroque movement — a loose grouping of poets from the 1970s onwards who preferred a dense, multidimensional approach rather than the then-common plainspoken colloquial or conversational style — yet Kozer’s poetry is very much sui generis.
Even before being read, a Kozer poem proclaims itself by its scroll-like layout, and one quickly notices the disruptive syntax, the use of parentheses, the signature repetition of words, and the diversity of a vocabulary garnered from across the Spanish-speaking world, where Cubanisms, Mexicanisms, and words peculiar to Chile or Peru, jostle against the Spanish of the Siglo de Oro. The versicle layout in the form
suggests a Biblical scroll that the yad or pointer moves down and, equally, a Chinese or Japanese scroll where poetry is a visual, as well as auditory, aesthetic experience. The reader’s experience of Kozer’s poetry is also shaped by the general absence of punctuation, the sudden shifts in grammatical structure, the tendency for past tense to glide into present tense, for third-person pronouns or verb endings to suddenly become first person: in short, a series of devices that help create an experience of simultaneity and immediacy.
Often, in Kozer’s poems, there is a collapsing of sequential or historic time into a single present. In “Indicios, del inscrito” (“Traces, of the inscribed”), for example, a grandfather in the hour of death reciting or tracing with his finger a prayer enters into the presence of his namesake David going down with his chariots. There is also the experience of fusion, as in the Zen-like moment of identification when the poet chewing a biscuit and the caterpillar chewing a leaf merge into each other. A sense that the religious impulse speaks directly into our profound incomprehension before death is at the core of much of Kozer’s poetry. The religious dimension to his poetry (and to his stylistics) helps explain why Kozer’s poems of childhood, family, Cuba, and everyday life are so distinctive when compared with many North American poems dealing with similar subject matter. The poem does not resolve into a story, nor does it settle into the contemplation or celebration of the strangeness of language. In an interview with Jacobo Sefamí, Kozer states that calling his poetry “neobaroque” or concerned with “language” is only one way to situate it, but that calling it “religious” might be another, even more valid way:
I don’t have a problem of language, I have a religious, metaphysical, philosophical, ethical problem. Language after all is not an end in itself, it’s an instrument; it’s not autonomous, it’s a vehicle … yes, for me, what moves me is religious difficulty, the difficulty before the death of the body.
A second aspect of Kozer’s manner of being neobaroque concerns the surrealist strain in his work. This has been largely underrepresented in the selections made of his poetry, especially in websites and anthologies in English, which tend to focus on his poems of family life, childhood in Cuba, and everyday married life or his Buddhist poems. The three poems presented in Jacket2 highlight this other, surrealist side of Kozer’s work. As Melanie Nicholson argues persuasively, surrealism reinvented itself in Latin America, leaving a widespread, diffuse trace, particularly from the start of the 1950s, among poets like Olga Orozco, Octavio Paz, Alejandra Pizarnik, and Marosa di Giorgio. It was not the surrealism of automatic writing or of wordplay for its own sake that interested these poets — rather, they were drawn to surrealism’s “conviction that poetry is a path to knowledge,” tapping into forces of eros, magic, and dream material to make poetry a place of revelation. The inclusion of oneiric material, trust in the poem as a journey that escapes one’s control, wildly disruptive images, and rapid syntactic transformations: all these surrealist traces are visible in Kozer’s poetry.
It is interesting to think how differently surrealism was interpreted or bent as it was adopted, around the same time, in North America and in Latin America. Where New York poets and others (even in their selections and translations of French Surrealists) tended to hear a “cool,” abstract, even cerebral, poetry, in Latin America a more emotional, threatening, and visceral “magic” surrealism developed. While such poets as Ashbery, O’Hara, or Koch valued surrealism, perhaps above all, for its liberating effect, the way it gave permission for the poem to cast off the moorings of subject matter or preimposed unity, trusting the poem could “make its own days,” in Latin America the connections between surrealism and eros and thanatos predominated. (In making this contrast I’m thinking most of all of the New York poets and of the period roughly between 1945 and 1975. Charles Simic and Russell Edson, for example, with their darkly visceral surrealism, are a different story again.) In poets as diverse as Paz, Orozco, Pizarnik, and di Giorgio, there is the vision of a poetry that is neither narrowly personal nor social nor political (nor purely experimental), but arises from a level below such categories, incorporating a strong presence of nonrational elements. Traces of that emotionally charged surrealism help explain the sense of depth in Kozer’s poetry, grounding his distinctive stylistics in an underlying oneiric energy. I must stress that I use the word “surrealism” here very loosely — it is not a label Kozer would apply to himself.
Three poems from Carece de causa
José Kozer’s 1988 collection Carece de causa (“No known cause” or “It lacks a cause”) marks a significant growth in the level of complexity, strangeness, and difficulty of his poetry. Compared to earlier poems like “Te acuerdas, Sylvia,” “Gramática de papá,” or “Mi padre, que está vivo todavía” (all from Este judío de números y letras  or Bajo este cien ), the poems gathered in Carece de causa signal a turning away from linear narrative, a dislocation of reader expectation, the simultaneity of many levels. While the earlier poems — had they been written in English — would not have looked out of place in North American poetry, in Carece de causa and his subsequent books Kozer develops a style of poetry unlike anything I know of in North America, an approach to poetry very much his own. Partly this has to do with the number of poems that lack obvious references to personal or social narrative. Partly it is a matter of how strangely compounded, inverted, and encrusted his poems become — even when they do seem to start from a clear focus, such as the illness of his father or his grandfather’s death. Often we don’t know where we are, or the apparent location of the poem’s “action” fractures to reveal layer upon layer. There is a liturgical, ritualistic dimension to the poetry, a deliberate splicing between language levels and dialects of Spanish, the inclusion of biblical and mythical presences that undermines realist expectations. Yet, at the same time, the surrounding everyday world is presented in its precise minutiae, recorded in a language that seeks to claim “the totality” of Spanish vocabulary. This combination of indeterminate location, suspended narrative, and very specific vocabulary helps give Kozer’s poetry its unique feel. Of equal importance, the poems respond to psychic, emotional, and religious pressures that shape the whole. Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo in his reflections on poetry suggests:
In all the words of a poem you must be able to read their necessity, that is, one by one they should convince us that they are there because they are more necessary than other words which were not used, and, what is more complicated, that they are more valid than silence itself. (“In art it is difficult to say something which would be as good as saying nothing,” affirmed Wittgenstein.)
In other words, as well as surprising us, poetry ideally convinces us of its necessity. In Kozer that driving force, that necessity in the writing, most often involves the religious dimension to life, the proximity of death.
The three poems presented here — “Retributions” (“Las retribuciones”), “Things near at hand” (“Proximidades”), and “Echoes” (“Ecos”) — share a strange oneiric quality. Although I have been labeling this quality “surrealist,” perhaps “cabalistic” would be a better description. It seems concerned with realities underlying this reality — or at least, invisibly present in it. We do not know where we are. Is this the Cuba of Kozer’s childhoood or Forest Hills, New York, where he lived at the time of writing, or perhaps somewhere in the Middle East or Eastern Europe? In “Retributions,” for example, the wicker easy chairs where the ladies and gentlemen doze suggest Cuba, but the city’s domes suggest Jerusalem. The cap and gown of the magistrates and the bonnets of the ladies suggest a genteel world, Jane Austen’s England perhaps, yet this outdoor tea party takes place in the presence of a highly ritualized butcher contemplating a cow that has been or is about to be slaughtered. Repetition heightens the ritualistic effect. The time frame is deliberately unclear. Of the poem’s twenty stanzas, seven are predominantly cast in some form of the past tense, nine in the present; elsewhere the future or the imperative takes prominence. The effect is to strip us of easy bearings, an effect increased by the general absence of punctuation. In the final stanza, for example, we could read the final lines in Spanish as “begins the reverse of shadow [of darkness?] / the apogee of the breeze among the poppies splashes the walls,” taking “the apogee of the breeze” as one more subject of “begins.” We could even go back to near the beginning of the stanza and read “the shape of the cups” as the subject of “splashes the walls.” The difficulty of tracking the subjects of verbs is one of the challenges of translating Kozer’s poetry. Yet a translation into English also opens up ambiguities not present in the Spanish. In the original, for example, it is not possible to interpret this last stanza as saying that the reverse of shadow begins the apogee of the breezes, as “se inicia” (“begins”) is intransitive. In English, without adding a lot of punctuation or overdirecting the reader, it is impossible to rule out all such “illegitimate” ambiguities, over and above the real ambiguities.
In “Things near at hand” (“Proximidades”) and “Echoes” (“Ecos”) not only do we not know where we are, but both poems are built around strange presences that belong to some oneiric or cabalistic strata. The three old ladies in “Things near at hand” are clearly much more than old ladies — their ancientness goes much further back. They lie down to sleep under frost. Forming the flowerbeds into some ritualistic cross they lay down conditions that look very like a spell or curse. Who are their children (or should it be more specifically “sons,” another possible reading of the Spanish)? And who is the “I” of this poem? In “Echoes,” mysterious word-eating animals seem to have evolved from metal alloys by some strange alchemy and to exist alongside Orpheus. And yet in the last stanza the poet’s wife is there, naked while he wears some very specific clothing — a “dark blue woollen sweater” and “a sienna polka-dot tie.” It is these sudden, unexplained, disruptive transformations that explain why I use the word “surrealist” to characterize these poems. Moreover, what unfolds does not have the implicit narrative or concern with constructing a self, or with questioning the frailty and exposed nature of an identity, that can be found in such North American poems inflected by surrealism as Frank O’Hara’s “In memory of my feelings” or “Mayakovsky.” Kozer’s poetry does not seem interested in such narratives of the self. We are truly in the presence of a very different poetic. Everything unfolds with an impersonal authority — the “I” is not particularly a biographic “I.” Each image that moves us forward becomes a new reality: a city lying below a city, the German phrase “Ich möchte rauchen” (why German?), and the roof slates that have just now rained down. None of these images — or should we say “moments”? — is given greater importance than the others. There is no hierarchy. There is, however, a compelling dream logic to it all. Death, the exposure of being naked, creativity, and wonder — these forces assemble and reassemble a great diversity of material and of language. Admittedly Cuba is never very far — just as the Holocaust, Eastern Europe, and Jerusalem are never very far — but not as any kind of subject matter capable of being described, much less fixed, rather as resonances that continue to speak through the poems.
One of the challenges of translating Kozer’s poetry in general — and these three poems are no exception — concerns his range of both formal and highly colloquial, often regional, vocabulary and the resultant interplay of ritualistic and conversational tones. In “Echoes” (“Ecos”) the word “féferes,” for example, points simultaneously in several directions. I have translated it as “thingamies” but, as a synonym for “trastos,” it could also be taken to mean junk, useless things, or it could be used by a workman to refer to his tools, as someone might say “my gear,” “my things.” In the Dominican Republic it could mean the male sex organs, or in Cuba food for babies or farm animals — “pap” or “fodder” perhaps. In the context it seems to refer above all to a lazy way of talking, almost like saying “what’s-it’s-name,” but it also suggests something looked down on, such as leftover corn stalks used to feed horses. Of equal importance, I suspect, coming after the reference to a nasal voice, it has to my ear an almost comical sound, like someone with a slight speech defect. There is no way I can think of to match all these options. “Thingamies” is not particularly used of human or animal food, and while it captures a lazy way of speaking, it is not exactly comical. Overall, I am sure, my translations of Kozer’s poems are relatively more formal and employ a more standard English than his “total” Spanish. This is largely inevitable in translation as it would seem arbitrary and odd to fill his poems (in translation) with Cockney slang or regional words from 1950s rural Alabama, for example, apart from the problem of such regional expressions being incomprehensible to most readers. On a few occasions over the years, where Kozer uses a word heavily marked with a specifically regional status, I have worked in a couple of Australianisms. In one poem published by Shearsman I used the Australian “woop woop,” meaning a remote place, and in another “feeling real crook,” a tough old Aussie’s way of saying “about to die.” Apart from highlighting the shared fact of writing from inside marginal dialects of an immense world language, these small gestures hint at the commonalities of our two “island homes.” However, in the case of the three poems presented here in Jacket2, hunting for Australianisms did not seem appropriate.
In Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s introductory essays to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, the authors trace the algorithmic-appropriative condition of Conceptual writing back through Conceptual art to its emergence in the work of Marcel Duchamp. (The volume’s excerpts from Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1874 La Dernière Mode, or Denis Diderot’s eighteenth-century literary appropriation, seem to represent anachronistic exceptions to their rule.) For Dworkin and Goldsmith, Duchamp is the heroic initiator of an anti-aesthetic mode of practice that makes the execution (and reading) of things like poetry, as Sol LeWitt would say, “a perfunctory affair.” The readymade is the über-concept of this hybrid venture they have nominated Conceptual writing.
But while their readymade reading of the Duchampian proposition may be useful, I propose this history requires another step back.
Because for one thing, these two poet-editors have rather neglected the history of the readymade itself. Namely, that Duchamp took the word, ready-made, from the label inside a department-store shirt. As MoMA’s website tells us: “In its strictest sense [the term] is applied exclusively to works produced by Marcel Duchamp, who borrowed the term from the clothing industry while living in New York.” (NB: “borrowing” and stealing are synonymous acts in the realm of artistic practice.) We might then postulate that Conceptual art is but an echo of a condition that has its roots in the mid-nineteenth century, as mass-produced clothing increasingly displaced homemade or tailored garments designed to fit individual bodies. For as the management of sweatshop production evolved, the execution of such items became a “perfunctory affair.” What mattered most by 1914, the year of Duchamp’s first official, unassisted readymade, Bottlerack, was the bourgeois act of shopping, or choosing, among already finished items (such consumption having become a facile means to appropriate the worker’s labor, as Marx might say).
It may be instructive, then, to turn to another artifact from Duchamp’s oeuvre: not a readymade per se, but rather the algorithm he drafted for the 3 Standard Stoppages (1914):
The Idea of the Fabrication
— If a straight horizontal thread one meter long falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane distorting itself as it pleases and creates a new shape of the measure of length. —
— 3 patterns obtained in more or less similar conditions: considered in their relation to one another they are an approximate reconstitution of the measure of length.
The 3 standard stoppages are the meter diminished.
Long live! clothes and the racquet-press.
Make a painting: of happy or unhappy chance (luck or unluck).
Whether interpreted as mere instructions or Conceptual writing, it is fair to assume that Duchamp’s algorithm here was based on a certain style of (pseudo-scientific) management. We might even call the Stoppages — a work made using “regular tailor’s thread” — a sartorial diagram. His “Idea of the Fabrication” was never fully divorced from the material stuff, but rather functioned to stamp its fabric, cut it, and stitch it into a kind of assisted ready-made, through a fully managed means of production. Indeed, if “clothes and the racquet-press” pertain to Duchamp’s Stoppages, the artist’s referents may have been the various “drafting machines,” patterns, and measuring equipment used by sweatshop managers to construct ready-made clothing that pressed bodies into standardized, though incrementally variable, forms. The ready-made shirt — fabricated within a capitalist mode of production and sold in department stores — served as Duchamp’s über-concept, if you will.
“Different Alterations on the Sleeve.” Page from “The French and English Systems of Cutting, Fitting, and Basting Ladies’ Garments by James McCall: First Series” (1882). Smithsonian Archives Center, Washington, DC, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana: Business Ephemera: Pattern Industry, box 1, folder 20.
Tool for measuring and drafting a basic dress bodice, by the Vienna Ladies’ Tailoring Institute (1905). Reproduced in Claudia Kidwell, Cutting a Fashionable Fit: Dressmakers’ Drafting Systems in the United States (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979), 41.
In her 1989 essay on the readymade model, Molly Nesbit says something similar. She claims its origin may be found in the method of mechanical drawing taught to school-age children throughout France, beginning circa 1888. Both the readymade and techniques of diagrammatic drawing were, significantly, “not optical.” This “nonretinal” artifact, she argues, “clearly identified with the croquis coté, the blue-print for production, the working drawing for the commodity” — like the coffee grinders, shovels, and other precisely rendered tools found in teachers’ instruction manuals at the time. But if this is the case, as Nesbit points out, then the algorithmic logic underpinning the readymade was also “hardly neutral; it cheerfully ratified the means and ends of industrial production; insofar as it was a language for everyday use, it was a language of work, a language of industry.” Indeed, about the same time that Frederick Taylor had developed his eponymous system for organizing factory bodies, readymade blueprints had changed the modus operandi of art.
And so, after many decades of scientifically managed production came the flexible management of consumption — in Facebook, Tumblr, ArtStack, and the like. Goldsmith’s prescriptive logic of the cut-and-paste fits neatly within this diagram: “Filtering is taste. And good taste rules the day.” This brand of Conceptual writing is thus a practice in tastefully choosing and wearing proverbial shirts, or being “well-groomed.” Only now, in its flexibility, the readymade may be falling apart at the seams. As Duchamp might say: while good taste requires cutting, there is little point in mending a shirt from H&M or D&G.
3. Matthew Gale, “Ready-made,” from Grove Art Online (Oxford University Press, 2009).
4. Due to exorbitant copyright costs levied by Duchamp’s estate, the author has decided not to reproduce this well-known work here. Photographic reproductions and descriptions of 3 Standard Stoppages can easily be found on the websites of various modern art museums, as here.
5. These notes by Duchamp concerning the 3 Standard Stoppages are found in“The 1914 Box” and reprinted in Marcel Duchamp, Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 22–23.
6. Marcel Duchamp, cited in Rhonda Roland Shearer and Stephen Jay Gould, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages, More Truly a ‘Stoppage’ (An Invisible Mending) Than We Ever Realized,” Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal 1, no. 1 (December 1999).
7. Molly Nesbit, “Ready-Made Originals: The Duchamp Model,” October 37 (Summer 1986): 59.
11. This phrase references the title of a 1915 readymade by Duchamp, Tiré à quatre épingles,a French idiomatic expression, meaning “well-groomed,” (though it has been incorrectly translated into English as “Pulled at four pins”). See Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969), 454.
My initial engagement with and understanding of the expanded practices of Conceptual writing is situated within a particular geography — Denendeh, or the Northwest Territories of Canada — during the proposed Mackenzie Valley Gas Project hearings held throughout the territory. The purpose of the proposed pipeline was to pump natural gas from Arctic Ocean reserves south across the entire territory to Alberta, where it would fuel the production of tar sands oil. Many considered the project to be “basin-opening,” meaning that it would serve as a main artery for dozens, if not hundreds, of smaller pipelines that would tap into it, accelerating the infectious spread of Alberta’s boom-and-bust petro-economics throughout the North.
The pipeline hearings and media depicting the hearings — testimonies; court transcripts; environmental impact assessments; informative publications such as pamphlets and websites produced by groups with competing interests, i.e. the National Energy Board, Indigenous governments, the pipeline proponents, and environmental organizations; radio and newspaper coverage — were a complex milieu of language. Eleven different languages were used throughout the proceedings: Chipewyan, Cree, Dogrib, English, French, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, and South Slavey. Often, specific terms and phrases made translation — into other languages, into other epistemological frameworks — exceptionally difficult: for example, words regarding land and livelihood in the various Indigenous languages, or the scientific terms and practices of biologists and ecologists, or the industrial specificities and corporate-speak of the pipeline proponents. Additionally, these languages and their vocabularies were staged within the settler-colonial process of the hearings, which had their own procedures and jargon that were alienating to many while benefitting the corporations and governmental departments that have historically catalyzed social violence and environmental devastation in the North.
I remember attending the hearings and listening to the proponents’ lawyers speak variations of the word “mitigation” over and over. The proponents would employ “mitigation measures” to offset any adverse impact the pipeline and its construction would have on the land, its animals, and inhabitants. The effects that increased resource exploration and excavation would have on the Beaufort Sea, the Arctic tundra, and Mackenzie-Valley corridor would be “mitigated.” The impact the pipeline would have on the bird sanctuary where the natural gas fields were located would be “mitigated.” The fact that herds of caribou would not be able to cross into their calving grounds during construction would be “mitigated.” Changes to the permafrost around the pipeline would be “mitigated.” The social repercussions of hundreds of temporary workers — mostly men from the south — moving into small, remote Indigenous communities would be “mitigated.” Again and again, they said it. “Mitigation” became a concept that, in their mouths, had no meaning whatsoever. Yet its function was clear: “Mitigation” was a word that could satisfy the juridical demands of the process, ward off further scrutiny from environmental groups, while obfuscating and deterring others from challenging the proposal.
I remember listening to an afternoon Dogrib radio broadcast in which the pipeline was discussed at length. I wrote a list of every English word spoken during that hour:
environmental impact assessment
National Energy Board
joint review panel
Premier Floyd Roland
Aboriginal Pipeline Group
Indian and Northern Affairs Canada
These were the words — proper nouns and phrases particular to settler-colonial governance in the North — that could not be translated, the only ones that retained their Anglo-composition in the Dogrib broadcast. If one wanted to pinpoint exact instances in which a settler-colonial epistemology infiltrates another language, one might begin with these terms and the contexts of their use.
I remember reading the National Energy Board’s published final decision that approved the construction of the pipeline. It is titled: “Respecting All Voices: Our Journey to a Decision.” In it, many of the Indigenous and environmental critiques of the pipeline and the hearings process are ventriloquized and recontextualized, while dissent is edited or erased. A Dene Elder’s testimony about honoring the land, its peoples and animals, and her continued efforts fighting against the pipeline appears in the report, with a notable difference. Her comments about honoring the land are there — in large font beside a picture of Deh Cho (or the Mackenzie River) — but the remark about her opposition is absent. One finds instances like this again and again throughout the report. The outright protest against the pipeline is transformed into a gentle suggestion; certain Indigenous perspectives appear in the overall package to highlight the National Energy Board’s “consultations”; violences past and future are acknowledged, yet done in a manner so as to be immediately eschewed.
What these examples highlight is how language enacts power, how language enforces power, how language becomes a record of that power. These figurings of settler colonialism is what initially drew me toward the expanded practices of Conceptual writing. At the time of the Mackenzie Gas Project hearings, I sought a poetic practice that engaged the ways language functioned in these milieus, not simply at the level of the word or phrase but as an overall process and structure. I wanted a poetry that confronted the various collective assemblages of enunciation that address particular structures of power. I sought a poetics that documented the institutional violences of settler-colonial empire — its texts, processes, and performances.
I looked for precedents. I read Vanessa Place’s Tragodía, and its procedural vampiricisms resonated deeply with many aspects of the pipeline hearings, from individual utterance to total schema. I read Kenneth Goldsmith’s American trilogy — The Weather, Traffic, and Sports — and found there the idiom of US empire, its carnivals, jingles, and mascots. I read Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary and was stunned by the paratactical orchestration of the global coal industry’s official rhetoric and the personal testimonies of extractive disaster. I read M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! and then I listened to the work performed and heard there the stutters and moans and forced silences of documented massacre, its fractured resounding.
These works have in common a transcriptive poetics and a repositorial logic, two compositional features that can effectively portray the nexus of power and language. By transcriptive poetics, I mean that the language of the poems is sourced from various “information genres,” as John Guillory phrases it — transcripts of testimonies, broadcasts, manuals, newspapers, legal texts — and is rewritten, reframed, or reformatted within a poetic text; by repositorial logic, I mean that the authors are working with specific collections of archival materials from which they intentionally select, edit, and construct their poetic text.
I understand that these works arguably are or are not “Conceptual writing.” I am less dedicated to a taxonomical title, and more concerned with the compositional tactics they share. They are tactics that on their own do not determine whether or not a work is an example of Conceptual writing, yet they are tactics scrutinized primarily within the milieus in which Conceptual writing has been discussed and debated. They are tactics that continue to be tested and transformed in recent works framed within the milieus of Conceptual writing: in Carlos Soto-Román’s Chile Project: Re-Classified, a work that documents an attempted blackout of neoliberal terror; in Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia, which dredges up and disrupts narratives of colonizing what is presently known as the Canadian prairies; and in Jordan Abel’s Un/Inhabited, an attempt to dismantle the entire pulp-fiction genre of settler-colonial romance.
“I want a literature that is not made from literature.” I read this line from Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue as I complete this writing, and it expresses exactly what was and continues to be for me the primary intrigue of Conceptual writing. I want a literature that is composed of an array of inscriptive practices: their systems, devices, logics. I want a literature that engages the language that forms power relations — modes of supremacy and domination — in the world. Within the milieus of contemporary poetry and poetics, Conceptual writing’s ability to take up an array of inscriptive modes and to portray specific enactments of power through language is to my mind its most poignant and provocative contribution. What remains to be thoroughly examined are the differences, responsibilities, and effectivity of these textual transfigurations.
Frustrated by debates over Conceptualism v. “Other,” I’m hoping, in this small space, to swerve and focus on what is, to me, a more daunting divide in contemporary experimental writing: that between Empathic and Apathetic art. These are notes towards locating a gradation within US-based writing, art, and performance that points towards what’s at stake in literary practice. My hope is that by attending to the affectivity of formal qualities in texts, we might not only spotlight insensitivity and bigotry in art but also move on to the urgency of other types of work, arising from embodied rage, empowerment, visibility, recuperation, healing, and awe.
1. Apathetic art is art, but with an ulterior motive: to seem smart.
2. Empathetic art is art, but with an ulterior motive: to feel real.
3. Apathetic art prioritizes the mind during a bodywide blackout; forgets where language begins; pushes aside what language extends; assumes a whitewash as proving grounds for intellect: mastery/expertise/power/career/…/…
4. Empathetic art adores ways of knowing outside of logic and reason-based discourses; recognizes the body as the center of affect; the body as marked: racialized/queered/classed/gendered/[dis]abled/[un]sexed/[non]citizened/…/…
5. Apathetic art relies on gimmick as a crutch to hold up its anemic and neglected body.
6. Empathetic art uses prosody, rhythm, and cadence to invigorate the body, especially those weakened by centuries of cultural malnutrition and disease.
[Aside: On April 17, 2009, instead of attending the Conceptualism vs. Flarf summit at the Whitney Museum, I drank tallboys with my friends on the Williamsburg Bridge — choosing empathy over apathy:
Friends choosing empathy: Williamsburg Bridge, April 17, 2009. Photo by JH Phrydas.]
7. Apathetic art self-aggrandizes in institutionally sanctioned spaces and calls this apolitical.
8. Empathetic art looks to communal action like MCAG as a way forward: revitalized and hopeful to break through ossified and domineering structures, bearing the brunt of substantial affective labor, even if unpaid and utterly exhausted.
9. Apathetic art dodges accountability by claiming its language is “not its own.”
10. Empathetic art knows we’re all born into language and must choose how to wield it.
11. Apathetic art cowers behind a political economy with blood on its hands.
12. Empathetic art bleeds and keeps bleeding: even if nobody tweets to make it famous.
13. Apathetic art creates a hideous community and blames the community for its hideousness.
14. Empathetic art is not afraid to be alone, communing with the dead, intuition, and body memory to incubate the work to its utmost strength.
15. Apathetic art forgets who the enemy is, and in self-induced aphasia, becomes complicit with it.
16. Empathetic art hangs a portrait of the enemy on its wall, memorizing its features as a daily exercise.
17. Apathetic art turns sexism/racism/homophobia into “art” and says, “the Internet made me do it!”
18. Empathetic art engages with critical race theory, immigrant/non-Western writing circles, writing workshops for prisoners, people working in community art centers with adults and children with disabilities, writing used to help veterans with wartime PTSD, writing workshops for LGBTQ youth, and art centers and projects and parties that promote alternate spaces for those forgotten or sidelined by society.
19. Apathetic art does not take into consideration the very real destruction of the earth and all its life-sustaining efforts, utilizing natural resources disrespectfully, unnecessarily, and exorbitantly as a form of colonizing self-entitlement.
20. Empathetic art acknowledges and reveres the earth via rituals of respect and recuperation.
21. Apathetic art looks to Andy Warhol for precedence: a way to proceed, seeing his use and subsequent discard of queer, trans, colored, and female bodies as permission to do likewise.
22. Empathetic art looks to James Baldwin for precedence: a way to proceed, insisting on re-negotiating dominant forms of discourse, implicating the body of the artist as the site of that negotiation: not afraid to bring up anathema notions of “integrity” and “hope.”
23. Apathetic art always wants the last word, concomitantly ignorant of atavistic flows.
24. Empathetic art knows there is no last word. It will always ask for help as well as defer to another who has said it better — in humility to our elders:
There appears to be an anaesthetic edge to the conceptual, as the concept’s generality implies an inactuality that thwarts the presence presupposed by the here-and-now of aesthetic experience. Conversely, things that exist but cannot be encountered are nothing but pure concepts to us. As the concept of an ecosystem, for example, is not exemplified by anything you may encounter wandering through it, it escapes our aesthetic faculties entirely.
I am interested in what the engagement with pure concepts entails for the conceptuality of poetic practice in the case of the Anthropocene. Geologists propose the Anthropocene to be the current geological epoch — implying that the Holocene, the interglacial epoch outlasting the last 11,700 years of Earth history, has already been shattered by a sudden geological event called industrialized humanity, or capitalism. That humans today modify the majority of the Earth’s surface through agriculture and urbanization, move around more materials annually than all other terrestrial processes combined, with their livestock make up more than ninety-five percent of the biomass of all vertebrates, produce a climate not encountered on Earth since the Tertiary period, and likely will cause the sixth mass-extinction event in Earth history, suggests that the whole Earth is no longer a background upon which human history unfolds. Pushing the definition to its core, the Anthropocene may be called that terrestrial regimein which any possible value of any possible parameter characteristic of the Earth system as a whole as well as of its nested ecosystems and biogeochemical circles can, in principle, be brought about anthropogenically. This amounts to an absolute geological performativity of the Earth, or an absolute interiority of the Earth to a biosphere in which humanity plays a key role.
Now, of course no one has ever seen this with his or her own eyes. Unlike some strands of ecopoetry that feature human encounters with animal and plant life in settings of outdoorness, and focus on visible environmental damage, there is no outdoors in the Anthropocene, which is made up of ecosystems, populations, and flows of matter and energy — not individual nonhuman objects — while the scope of its devastations requires quantitative expertise to be gauged. If it wants to pursue a terrapoetics that is true to the Anthropocene condition, poetry has to familiarize itself with, and choose as its own habitat, the conceptual spaces, datascapes, and terrains of technoscientific knowledge that (by way of its capabilities) have brought about the current status in the first place, and are today involved in its self-reflection under the rubric of the Anthropocene concept. Such poetry would be conceptual first and foremost; note, however, that it would not have to be entirely anaesthetical: it may well draw some aesthetic traits from the diagrammatic and quantitative aesthetics of those spaces, scapes, and terrains which themselves are, of course, perceived firsthand.
I am not entirely sure what to look for here. But one may look for example at Eugene Thacker’s poem “The Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids” (in the eponymous chapter of his 2011 book In the Dust of this Planet) and the ways in which it lays out the ecological thresholds of bacterial life under extreme living conditions: “The amoeba Echinamoeba thermarum grows / Optimally at Topt > 50°C” — thresholds corresponding to those towards which efforts of Anthropocene governance are directed in order to construct a “safe operating space for humanity.” We need to stabilize the extremely unlikely living conditions of an artificial Holocene. Furthermore, one could read Evelyn Reilly’s Apocalypso, and the chapter “Dreamquest Malware” in particular, the reports and communications of which — “I am writing regarding our disposal procedures / especially for large containers / rigid with organic grief” — provide us with a sense of the terrestrial indoorness of the spaceship that Earth has become (Buckminster Fuller), implying the necessity of life consciously operating every aspect of its metabolism onboard. And one could analyze Juliana Spahr’s “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache” (in Well Then There Now [Black Sparrow Books, 2011]) which, in its unnatural exuberant listings of things, displays the anthropogenic taxonomic permeation of ecosystems as superseding any sense of scene and location, which exist no more in the global Anthropocene commixture of everything.
But this is not even a starting point; we will have to go further. This will be the future Conceptual poetry, which will certainly startle and skid, slide, trip and fall: because, how to imagine a conceptual that would not be general? But the Anthropocene, and the whole Earth at its core, are concepts, but not general — but singular — as there are no multiple Earths, and nothing on Earth is more concrete than the whole Earth? How can there be something conceptual in the face of the singularity of the whole Earth, where singularity signals: facticity, fate? Maybe we can think about this.
2. Johan Rockström et al., “A safe operating space for humanity,” Nature no. 461 (September 24, 2009): 472–75.