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.
I am writing this two days past Independence Day, a national holiday that witnessed anti-imperialist rallies organized by a broad multisectoral alliance that critically involves the Philippine Left to combat bureaucrat capitalism of which expansionalist efforts by China and the US are symptoms and operations. On the days leading up to this, my Facebook newsfeed has been hijacked by much of the Filipino middle class dripping and hardening with celebration over the partnership between the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC) and Uber, as well as similar profiteering app-based vehicle-hailing ventures like GrabTaxi and Easy Taxi, for what this government agency views not only as a solution to present public transportation woes but a challenge to taxi operators to update their services and compete with innovative new players in the industry. Secretary Jun Abaya — head of the DOTC and pawn of the Aquino regime whose advance of neoliberal policy manifests in its defense of and insistence on an iteration of a corrupt pork barrel system that advances patronage politics characteristic of the semi-feudal haciendero class the president belongs to — has in several statements to varying news agencies expressed pride in his collusion with the private sector that monetizes the present breakdown in public transport.
The said breakdown could be ascribed to the privatization of public transport at large. Gaining the most attention in media of late has been the MRT, of whose twenty trains — all in varying stages of dilapidation, which is expected of them for carrying almost 900,000 passengers daily (that’s around 450,000 in excess of their daily maximum capacity at optimum performance of only 350,000) — only seven are in operation. The situation has been the outcome not only of private maintenance deals that have been anomalous, to say the least, but of a stand-off between complicit government officials supposedly regulating public transport and opportunistic oligarchic players who possess true control and ownership of the train lines that has made the acquisition of new trains more daunting than it should be — a labyrinth of red tape and legal one-upmanship wrought by a bureaucracy of struggle between public and private.
Not to mention that sometime between the diminishment of the number of functional trains and the struggle to acquire new ones occurred not only the derailment and shooting of a train off its elevated terminal to land onto the country’s busiest intersection below, but also the implementation of a malicious, unwarranted, and much-protested fare hike across all train lines that doubles the cost of travel for those who commute from one end terminal to another — and it bears mentioning that those who rely most on this mode of transport are minimum wage workers and casual laborers, peppered in between with a range of urban professionals from white-collar cognitariats to the salaried bourgeoisie. To say that lines just getting through the turnstiles have gone kilometric despite the discouragement posed by the increased fares is no exaggeration, and so many have come to rely on pricier alternatives just to avoid getting physically mauled in and out of the trains as well as evade the uncertainty of how long it might take them just to step inside a coach.
Of these alternatives, the buses are the more affordable option, owing to the necessity of keeping to their designated routes made sluggish by legendary Manila traffic during rush hours. They have also acquired notoriety for being tin-can perils on wheels — either spontaneously combusting on the road out of lack of maintenance by their private operators, or colliding with other vehicles from their drivers’ hustling practices necessitated by the oppressive boundary system that works by way of commissions in excess of their daily fare quota instead of regular wages. Those who can afford to evade the urban terror of highway traffic resort to cabs, notorious for their outlawed practices of rejecting passengers whose desired destinations are out of drivers’ more convenient routes as well as padding costs way over the government-approved fare matrix — all in view of meeting the quota imposed on them by a similarly exploitative boundary system in lieu of a fair wage system, which demands maximum hustling for any driver in such precarious circumstances to bring home decent earnings.
These are the conditions that have primed the landscape for the opportunism of Uber and its ilk: matters of labor whose worsening conditions are simultaneously symptomatized and compounded by privatization as a neoliberal operation of bureaucrat capitalism. What should be no more than a symptom of breakdown in public transport as an outcome of state abandonment and government neglect has been reframed by the Aquino regime in cahoots with profiteers as not even a palliative but a solution to problems they themselves have constructed for the benefit of the ruling elite. This partnership institutionalizes exploitative labor practices left unchecked due to the relegation of public transport at large to a business-minded private sector — exploitative labor practices that themselves have created the conditions propelling profiteering app-based vehicle-hailing services to prominence for the few who can afford them, exploitative labor practices not only reproduced but heightened by these same profiteering app-based vehicle-hailing services in their reliance on casual laborers whose earning a living precludes disenfranchising the majority of commuters while leeching those who have extra to spare.
How absolutely deplorable it is — if not criminal — to valorize the smartphone-enabled institutionalization of exploitation as social innovation in a milieu that finds three hundred contractual workers on strike for receiving less than minimum wage with no promise of regularization in sight being water-cannoned by hired paramilitary personnel backed by the repressive state apparatus of the police for picketing at the union-busting distillery of the country’s leading brand of rhum, and seventy-two contractual laborers making flip-flops for a manufacturing company burning to death in sweatshop conditions behind chicken-wire-sealed windows in the biggest factory fire in Philippine history — both within the same month, both stemming from the deep-seated problem of inequality. Needless to say, public transport is hardly the only field in which privatization, as the deepening and expansion of the structural problem of private property, wreaks havoc.
Workers in protest being water-cannoned from Arkibong Bayan. Image courtesy of Southern Tagalog Exposure and Pamantik-KMU.
It is in this context of flagrant privatization that appropriation in constructivist poetic practice becomes necessary, even inevitable, emphasizing the need to keep a commons intact in the same manner public services, utilities, and infrastructure must be kept intact. By constructivism here I mean Conceptualism that foregrounds the insistence on autonomy as its political edge (faktura in the featuring of the infrathin, tectonics in the defamiliarization of faktura, construction in the positing of a world that refuses the monetization/instrumentalization of tectonics), and by appropriation I mean as much a technique where composition consists of reusing a found object — be it situation or sentence, shit or shovel — as a Conceptualist ontology that is founded nevertheless on the technique.
When Douglas Huebler articulated his now-anthemic aesthetic refusal — “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more” — it wasn’t so much to call for a halt to object-making as it was a call to conceive of art as a heuristic object that exists simultaneously with what it frames, though the latter often comes by way of the former. One could, therefore, create multiple art objects out of a single object — and not in the sense of taking a sheet of paper, folding it into a crane, then burning it to ashes, but in the sense of taking a sheet of paper, taking a sheet of paper, and taking a sheet of paper. The heurism of the art object is what makes possible John Cage authoring nothing in 4'33" in 1952, the fictitious Jacques Cégeste authoring nothing in Nudisme in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée in 1950 before Cage, José Garcia Villa authoring nothing in “The Emperor’s New Sonnet” in 1942 before Cocteau, and Fray Manuel Blanco authoring nothing in El Indio before Villa, rumors about the existence of which had been circulating by 1877.
Jose Garcia Villa’s “The Emperor’s New Sonnet.” Image courtesy of Bibliotheca Invisibilis.
This is also the principle that makes possible, decades later, the emergence of a fantasmatic and fragmentary Fernando Pessoa from Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s erasure of Rene O. Villanueva’s memoiristic essays in his work Pesoa; the emergence of choreography in documentary bookmaking from Donna Miranda’s durational revision of John Cage’s lecture on silence in her work I have nothing to dance and I am dancing it; the emergence of poetry from Oliver Ortega’s gradual substitution of exhibition notes with top ten trending searches in 2014 in his work Spam; the emergence of an assemblage from Conchitina Cruz’s anthology of lists by Villa in the first volume of her ongoing work The Uncritical Villa; the emergence of comics posed as soliloquy from Josel Nicolas’s transcription of exchanges in panels of chat boxes with sexbots luring him to adult websites in his work Wooty Baby; and the emergence of an unveiling from the Pedantic Pedestrians’ detournement of Senate Bill No. 2758, or the “Artist’s Welfare Protection and Information Act of 2015,” authored by Senator Grace Poe, which institutionalizes the patronage politics on which the artworld subsists in the face of worsening labor conditions at large and the general lack of access to public services such as healthcare in their work PROVIDING PROTECTION / PROVIDING PURPOSE. It bears mentioning that all these works are, if not freely downloadable or readable online, self-published without profit or published by small presses that operate at a loss.
Conchita Cruz’s The Uncritical Villa and Josel Nicolas’s Wooty Baby. Image courtesy of Angelo Suárez.
The same principle also makes possible the emergence of criticism in Adam David’s Hi Ma’am Sir, and one of its resultant collections of collages, It will be the same but not quite the same. The former, described as an online randomizer that takes copyrighted excerpts from the flash fiction anthology Fast Food Fiction Delivery from Anvil Publishing, had been the center of a heated discussion (that is, if a clash between echo chambers, one with more [financial] power and [institutional] influence than the other — one party on the side of enriching literary history and another on the side of protecting of private property — with opportunistic instances of fence-sitting marauding as nuanced participation scattered in between, could pass for discussion) that was catapulted to a measure of public attention by a request signed by lawyers sent David’s way, mentioning the threat of potential legal action for copyright infringement as an offense that could result in jail time and an exorbitant fee, to take down the site within a designated time span; the latter had been a downloadable .pdf gathering numerous outcomes of the randomizer — which anybody could replicate, in a sense, using the same source text from himaamsir.blogspot.com. In effect, anybody could author such a randomized collection, provided they use the construct authored by David, with It will be the same but not quite the same as the first and only collection to have been publicly declared authored (unsurprisingly) by David himself.
Both works were extensions of, according to the notice on David’s blog after taking them down, “a microreview focusing on what I perceive to be the anthology’s lack of an acute curatorial framework. HMS was the second part of this critical response. It was meant to demonstrate what I think is a flattening of aesthetics, politics, language, and form in contemporary English-language short story writing in the Philippines.” By authoring an electronic platform through which he had authored a collection of collages of randomized fragments which anybody else could also generate and author, David was, without question, guilty of creating a platform that called attention to a split in Fast Food Fiction Delivery that might as well as have been in any textual corpus — its status as an object, and its capacity to be reframed, heuristically, springing directly from its object status, into a new work even while keeping the originary object as source text intact. For in Conceptual art, it is art itself that is the concept.
Introduction to Adam David’s It will be the same/but not quite the same. Image courtesy of Angelo Suárez.
That the appropriative core of Conceptual practice features that the found object can be reused without any diminishment in its object status towards the production of another art object constitutes its resistance. Conceptual practice not so much reflects as directly enacts the making accessible of what it would make no sense to keep inaccessible — from knowledge and information to medical assistance and sustainable energy. To foreground appropriative resistance in Conceptualism makes Conceptualism constructivist, energized by the same utopian drive that animates the fight against privatization in the specific and bureaucrat capitalism in general.
1. Adam David, thirty minutes or less (blog), April 19, 2015.
On canon, Kenneth Goldsmith, and reading
I pitched this piece before Kenneth Goldsmith’s March 2015 performance at Brown University, and I wrote the interlinking reflections that follow the first section right after Goldsmith’s performance, so the progression of my thinking within this reflection is contorted and strange, especially now that I’m writing this preface months later. My piece feels a bit out of time, and while the intention of its content holds true, the reference points and ongoing discourse around the politics of Conceptualism (for example, reactions and performances made in spring and summer 2015 by Vanessa Place, Ron Silliman, and other poets and thinkers) make portions of it feel a bit outdated. From the outset, even before issues of race and appropriation set afire the poetry community, my intention was to discuss how canons are framed in deeply exclusionary ways, even within some of the portions of the canon that seem settled. I tend to think such exclusionary practices are just reinscribed across spaces — people seem to prefer there to be a telos in which a handful of contemporary writers “descend” from another handful of writers, all of whom look, and think, and sex, relatively the same. To be blunt: it is a bad way of looking at the world.
My initial intention with this reflection was to approach a transhistorical and transnational reading of a handful of canonical poets as a subversively amateur practice in order to intimate how the same structures of exclusion that reify a handful of white, heterosexual poets to privileged positions within Conceptual poetry are extant across temporal and national borders even within some of the more seemingly formed and settled historical sites of canonicity, sites that themselves can often be expanded via comparative lenses and contemporary theory. The aesthetic preferences that prop up a blank, white, able-bodied, heterosexual version of Conceptual poetry overlap, for instance, with the aesthetic preferences that exclude Richard Crashaw from the canon for being too femme, too excessive, too foreign. T. S. Eliot described Crashaw’s poetry: “Subtract from Donne the powerful intellect, substitute a feminine for a strongly masculine nature, posit a devotional temperament rather than a theological mind, and add the influence of Italian and Spanish literature … and you have Crashaw.” Given the dominant Anglo-American aesthetic, it’s no surprise that until 2013 there hadn’t been a critical edition of Crashaw’s poetry published in over forty years. Aesthetically queer, femme, excessive, foreign: erased.
To turn this toward the personal (because maybe the personal is still political): while a young, tender, and impressionable student in MFA school, I included an epigraph from a Rilke poem at the top of one of my own poems, and a doctoral student there looked at my poem and said, “Rilke, really? That’s sentimental rubbish.” A dull, offhand comment, but I respected this person, and his comment became a kind of strange, worm-like thing in my brain that bothered me for months. I deleted the epigraph. I read Rilke with more critical-tinted glasses. I pushed Rilke away from me. Why? Why did I listen to this person? How strange that while thinking about Conceptual poetry now I stumbled across a scholar who described the contemporary critical discourse surrounding Rilke in these terms:
One can remark that the critical discourse on Rilke runs to the homophobic without oneself attributing homosexuality to the poet. Instead, the point is that the professional stricture that readers should not get too personally stimulated by the caress of this seductive voice is structurally like, and probably is, prophylaxis against too-great intimacy with the sissy poet.
What is implied in intimacy? What should we be intimate with? Within such structures as the ones that exclude Crashaw and contain Rilke, to be called serious, to be allowed rigor easily, is to be bound inside an immunological border that elevates a handful of poets who are easily incorporated into white, cis, heterosexual, privileged, and able-bodied positions. Even these poets so seemingly canonical get cut out, excised. Other bodies need not apply — or, rather, there is no application process: there is a self-reproducing canonicity-machine reinforced by certain aesthetic proclivities and institutions written into those aesthetic proclivities. There are efforts at tokenistic inclusion, but the center rarely shifts; the world, the body of literature framed as being important to being in the world, rarely refigures itself deeply and inextricably. The question is: how can one change disciplinary and institutional spaces in order to make them more inclusive? What is being included on syllabuses? What theory is being read? How are you talking about the object in front of you? These spaces and canons are not going to disappear in a puff of smoke, but we can question what we’re including, and how we’re looking at it. In a way, this feels like a regressive suggestion of a return to warring over what should be included and excluded from the canon — but it feels clear to me from my everyday interactions within graduate school and within the wider poetry community, that we need to keep returning to these discussions within the institutional spaces we occupy. We need to look again at syllabi, at reading series, at journals, at conferences, at hiring practices, at the very lenses we use to approach texts in order to ask: “what is being left out?” Why has the center of this discourse settled here? What can I do as a student, teacher, writer, person, activist in order to make this better, to make it more inclusive? Such work is inescapable even when one sits down with metaphysical poets to pray to some dirty and erotic version of the religious, even as one is abstractly trying to navigate the relationship between the spiritual and the profane.
Against Conceptualism as a center
My initial intention was to provide a space strangely out-of-time and out-of-contemporary-poetry to think about how pervasive all of this is, but my initial intention was framed before Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance “The Body of Michael Brown,” before what some people considered the center of contemporary “Conceptual poetry” collapsed on itself, became nothing more than an echo that I hardly remember as much more than an empty space, an opening to be left for a multiplicity of poets. I take a bit of joy in this breakdown, and I want to caution against an attempt to recuperate certain writing practices under the singular banner of Conceptual poetry. I don’t think, nor do I think anyone should think, intertextuality, erasure, pastiche, performance, docupoetics, neobaroque poetics, ecopoetics, ethnopoetics, experimental lyricism, and so on, are practices that need to be included explicitly under the banner of “Conceptual poetry.” At best, Conceptual poetry is just one practice amid these other practices, and that’s fine, and that shouldn’t even be the center of our concerns because there are structures of exclusion that are much more insidious, of much greater import, than the mode or style a text was made in. And I ask quite simply to Conceptual poetry: what are you really adding to Warhol, and why won’t you let him have his femme shoes, male bodies, blowjobs, and erotics? Better yet, why are you even trying to add to Warhol? What do you have to say about systemic violence, systemic death? What do you wonder about as bodies around you are dying and you are surviving? I hope, for all our sakes, it’s not just the reproduction and representation of text.
Tentative closing thoughts
Proximally and for the most part, unless explicitly poked, poked the way I felt poked by Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance, I’m not a polemical person. I’m too bad at my own life, at being in the world myself, at coping with my three courses and teaching and my desire to be engaged in local politics. So, instead of giving you an epiphany, I just want to ask you, reader, to pressure your reading practices and the reading practices of the communities you occupy, because reading is a demanding practice that can help you find a way to be in our shared, complex, violent, political given. Seek out books that can provide you with an ethics in this sea of carnophallologocentric violence that is bound into all of the light bouncing off of all of the material that is entering your wounds, your eyes. And maybe your reading practices are even better than mine; in fact, I hope they are, and I hope you’re asking others to read different things too as an act of love, and that you’re loving those people so much that you help them push that reading into change at the site of politics, and at the site of the institution, and at the site of all that is dying outside of the text. This world, this world and the things we read within it, will be all the better for it; it will let us see how we might survive.
2. For a detailed description of the critical reception of Crashaw’s poetry see the introduction to Richard Crashaw, The English Poems of Richard Crashaw,ed. Richard Rambuss (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
4. Kenneth Goldsmith, “The Body of Michael Brown” (reading, Interrupt3: A Discussion Forum and Studio for New Forms of Language Art, The Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Brown University, Providence, RI, March 13, 2015).
5. I was asked to respond to Goldsmith’s performance “The Body of Michael Brown” on the last day of Interrupt3. A version of this response titled “The (Dis)Embodied Voice” is available online at The Offing with an introduction by Michael D. Snediker. The short response was originally performed using a feminine electronic voice in a form of drag.