Messing with the beholder

Claudia Rankine's 'Citizen' and embedded Conceptualism

Reproduction of Adrian Piper's 'Calling Cards' (undated). http://www.spencerart.
Reproduction of Adrian Piper's 'Calling Cards' (undated), which Piper distributed when racially insensitive statements were made in her presence. Calling cards also addressed sexual harassment and other issues.

Dear Divya,

You conceived this forum in the midst of attacks on Conceptualism for being a pain machine wielded by and for white people. I wondered whether your goal was salvific: could Conceptualism’s reputation and potential be rescued, could its soil be aerated and fertilized, could histories, lineages, practices, and ideas not normally associated with the current branding of Conceptualism become part of our sense of it. I felt a pang thinking: why’s it have to be on Divya to do salvific work with and for Conceptualism? I suspect, though, that you don’t want to save it but rather to transform it.

In the late 1960s, Conceptualist artists were turning toward “self-conscious investigation of … themselves as embedded participants in the social context.”[1] So said Conceptualist artist and philosopher Adrian Piper. Fifty years later, Conceptualist works by white writers on racism are being called out as racist projects — justly, in my view, despite what I hope to be the writers’ good intentions — and Piper’s account of embedded Conceptualism seems once again relevant. It encourages artists to acknowledge that their interventions emerge from positions in the social field that are unevenly empowered and unevenly audible, and that histories and contexts touched by Conceptualist artworks will release different charges depending on artists’ positions in the field.

Some of Piper’s work uses direct address to interfere with projections of the racial imaginary onto her body. A light-skinned woman of African American descent, Piper printed “calling cards” announcing “I am black” to be given out when racially insensitive statements were made in her presence (calling cards also addressed sexual harassment and other issues). And in 2012, Piper retired from being black in a letter addressed “Dear Friends” posted in her website’s “News” section and accompanied by an obviously darkened photograph of herself. These works are addressed to generalized others, to yous who are particularized in the encounter, invited to pay attention to the racial imaginary that their perceptions of her animate. Piper’s projects, in Fred Moten’s phrasing, “mess with the beholder”[2]: the works theatricalize interaction, drawing attention to all participants’ positions in the social field.

Affirming a representational poetics that contrasts starkly with 
idea-oriented Conceptualist interventions, Claudia Rankine has said that what interests her personally ... is the rendering of whole human beings.[3] But RankineCitizen: An American Lyric[4] bears a family resemblance to Conceptualism in several ways. As an archive of appropriated anecdotes about racist microaggressions, Citizen is kin to Conceptual archival works such as Kim Rosenfield’s I’ll Be Seeing You or Kristen Gallagher’s We Are Here. Also, you have suggested, Divya, that Conceptualism might be understood as “a devotional practice, a revisitation, a reengagement with the same text over and over again.”[5] Citizen insistently returns to scenes in which a distressing racial imaginary erupts into polite ordinary life. “I wanted,” says Rankine, “to communicate what it means to have these things accumulate in the body.”[6] The repetitions are an intimate ritual acculturation that, as Hilton Als’s blurb says, “comes at you like doom.”

Rankine’s project, like Piper’s work, hinges on interaction, and more specifically on intimacy. Though Rankine has said that she associates intimacy with lyric tradition, Citizen, subtitled An American Lyric, avoids most lyric conventions. It is mostly in unlineated prose; it employs appropriative strategies, which are not a convention of lyric practice; and it almost entirely avoids the pronoun most strongly associated with lyric, the expressive “I.” Citizen’s emphasis on second person is perhaps its most important revision of lyric convention. My friend Kelly Morse, a poet and translator and once my son’s babysitter, emailed me a few months ago wanting to talk about how Rankine’s work operated as lyric (she was working on a piece about Citizen and hybrid form),[7] and I sent her this:

To: Kelly
Date: February 27, 2015, 7:40am

… ok so lyric is a mode that operates doubly — it derives from song, that’s in the name (lyre, a song to accompany a lyre) and then it’s come to refer to an expressive song, from the heart, typically a song that apostrophizes or mourns an absent beloved. Any writing has apostrophe sort of embedded in it anyway because it is a communication that takes place in another place and time from the time when it will be read. So the situation of writing is fictionally microcosmed in lyric and that’s why it makes sense that many lyrics are songs of absence or loss and are concerned with issues of address.

I think this is what Rankine is thinking about when she calls her books “lyrics,” especially Citizen, which is deeply concerned with the way the “you” works and what an “I” can be. She uses second person to try to get around a problem she explains in the passage on the video art of Hennessy Youngman [a.k.a Jayson Musson]:[8] that a marked and stereotyped body — what Piper calls an “ethnically stereotyped art commodity” — is a difficult space from which to project subjectivity. “‘Race’” is “not only a system of ideas but an array of ascriptive racialising procedures which structure … social life” (in Chris Chen’s useful definition). Given the racial imaginary that we move through as if under water, “no amount of visibility,” according to Rankine, “will alter the ways in which one is perceived.” Wherever the “I” of a raced speaker is read as performing blackness, perpetuating the invisibility of the speaker, aesthetics and politics converge on the level of the pronoun. Rankine’s use of second person exposes the invisibled “other” as an experiencing subject.

The “you” in Citizen obviously refers to a person of color. But the particularities of the anecdotes only apply to “yous” of color in a general way. Rankine is and is not this you (she gathered anecdotes from many people); many or all black americans are this you — and the microaggressions experienced by this “you” can be multiplied millions of times for millions of experiences we are not given access to through this book, experiences that remain private and unregistered. And when white readers inhabit (in their imaginations) this “you,” they have to be uncomfortably aware that their real bodies in the world do not face these microaggressions — that they can feel the feelings of this you only in their imaginations. The “you” in the book takes the place of the lyric “I” — it is the experiencing zone, the place of feeling and expressing — but the “you” can’t map perfectly onto the experience of any one reader. That’s strategic and important because while we “feel”/are given access to the experiences of this “you,” we also feel our difference from the you. Some readers will think about the additional microaggressions they’ve experienced (and recategorize them as political — Rankine’s addition of “American” to “Lyric” inscribes intimate microaggressions in the public sphere). Others will recognize that they haven’t had these experiences at all, or not from a poc’s pov. So the lyric gesture of address becomes, very subtly and accretively, a consciousness-raising device.

Blah blah blah
Hope not too late
Miss you love you

I essentialized lyric, not to mention writing, pretty hard there, and I’d rather go with a more historicized and contingent definition of lyric like Virginia Jackson’s and Yopie Prins’s.[9] But let’s assume that Rankine is playing around with conventional understandings of lyric that developed in the twentieth century. Rankine, who has been thinking about lyric for a long time,[10] may have avoided the lyric “I” partly because she’s aware of the differential history of lyric in which white men’s feelings are given more space and valued more. Rankine’s point-of-view shift elegantly disorients conventional lyric postures. In Northrop Frye’s definition, “the poet, so to speak, turns his back on his listeners.”[11] Citizen doesn’t turn its back. Instead, it sets up a version of lyric that that addresses you directly, interpellates you. “So to speak”?

At the end of a poem in the middle of the book, in a reference to the Middle Passage, Rankine shifts subtly for a moment to first-person plural: “each body is a strange beach, and if you let in the excess emotion you will recall the Atlantic Ocean breaking on our heads.” The “heads” here are those of people brought across the Atlantic from Africa through the slave trade, but also those of their descendants, and of the people who don’t descend from them as well: the waves of the Middle Passage crash on all “our” heads. But on what resistant or porous surfaces do the emotions associated with those waves crash? Will their address be heard?

The last poem in Citizen shifts to first person, a more traditional lyric point of view. In it, Rankine tells a story about a microaggression to her son — an anecdotal framing of a first-person instance of the microaggression anecdotes we’ve heard many times by now. The poem invokes another familiar lyric convention: if lyric address (as Mill had it) is “overheard,” audience is also addressee. Rankine reminds us of this when she ends the book with the sentence “It was a lesson.” She’s talking about a tennis lesson, but she’s also claiming the harmful experiences compiled in Citizen as warnings, information for her son and for herself. On another level, Rankine is boldly hinting that the book may be taken as a lesson by its readers. Such a lesson might well crash inaudibly on the beach of historically constructed difference — unless it is felt. The book’s second-person accretive strategy is calculated to help its readers understand and feel it.

Questions of address bring up questions of care, questions about how we are participating in reframing and redefining the potentialities of relation.[12] Who are we talking to and how. To be honest I am not right now interested in whither Conceptualism. I am interested in whither care. Audre Lorde described care as an act of political warfare.[13] She was talking about self-care, but caring for others is political warfare too, because it messes with the systems in which white supremicist patriarchy embeds us. Meantime — please take care — and warmest regards,


1. Adrian Piper, “The Logic of Modernism,” in Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stinson (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 548.

2. Fred Moten, “The Resistance of the Object,” In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press),235. The chapter helped me understand how Adrian Piper’s work shares with Citizen a “concern with finding, elaborating, and enacting objections to the various ways of averting one’s gaze” (234).

3. Claudia Rankine, “Claudia Rankine: Citizen, An American Lyric,” interview by Michael Silver on Bookworm podcast, March 9, 2015.

4. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2015).

5. Divya Victor, interview with Troll Thread Poetry Collective by CAConrad, 8-POINTED STAR: poet interviews (blog). Victor is no longer part of the Troll Thread collective.

6. Rankine, Citizen.

7. Kelly Morse, “Embracing the Painfully Possible in the Human Heart,” Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, April 21, 2015.

8. The passage also appears in Lana Turner 6.

9. See Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, The Lyric Theory Reader: A Critical Anthology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

10. Rankine organized a conference with Allison Cummings on the topic: “Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women,” April 8–10, 1999, Barnard College. She also coedited two anthologies of women’s poetry subtitled “Where Lyric Meets Language.”

11. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 250.

12. See Trisha Low’s Compleat Purge (Kenning, 2013),which she calls “post-conceptual,” or Chris Kraus’s I LOVE DICK (Semiotext(e), 1997), for provocative and unsettling explorations of address in epistolary form that target class and gender.

13. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” (Quoted by CAConrad in a blog post the day I finished this piece.) Audre Lorde, Epilogue, A Burst of Light: Essays by Audre Lorde (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1988), 131.

Angelo Suárez's 'Philippine English' and the language of Conceptual writing

Pages from the opening chapter of 'Philippine English.' Courtesy J. Gordon Faylor.

I would like to consider Angelo V. Suárez’s Philippine English: A Novel (Gauss PDF, 2015) as a testing ground for the political work Conceptual writing can accomplish. This means historicizing before interpreting.

In 1898, after more than three centuries of Spanish rule, American imperialism instituted English as the new language of foreign power in the Philippines. Though the United States officially recognized the sovereignty of the Philippines in 1946, the legacy of American colonialism remains an active presence throughout the Philippine islands, including but not limited to its language. Linguistic studies such as Maria Lourdes S. Bautista’s 2001 “Studies of Philippine English”[1] explore this influence as it manifests in the Philippine English dialect — distinct from general American English, Filipino (the Philippine national language), and the common practice of code-switching between the two. Though expository, such studies provide the tools for reading political texts like Suárez’s Philippine English, which frames the linguistic shifts defining Philippine English as active political subversion. 

Posited in its preface as bildungsroman, Philippine English lifts its language entirely from the Anvil-Macquarie Dictionary of Philippine English for High School, a gesture it uses to explore the ways Philippine English speakers transform compulsory English language acquisition into an act of cultural solidarity. If, as Wittgenstein argued, the limits of my language are the limits of my world,[2] Suárez’s Philippine English explores how Philippine English speakers undermine not only the sinister legacy of America’s presence in the Philippines until 1945, but also the culturally homogenizing force of English as the universal language of globalized, neoliberal capitalism. To forward this political argument, Philippine English claims the genre markers “Conceptual writing,” “novel,” and “poem.” This hybrid form means both maintaining and revising the twenty-six alphabetic sections found in the source text. In place of the standard dictionary sections, Suárez organizes his text around the altered pronunciations with which Philippine English speakers contort the international force of American English and culture (such as substituting the vowel sounds: [a] for [ae], [O] or [o] for [ow], [i] for [iy], [a] for [e], and [e] for [ey], among others).

I look to Philippine English’s opening chapter for a model to read the text at large. In addition to overtly political lines such as, “An American citizen. That tourist is American” (17), the “A, a” chapter also contains a number of highly politicized micronarratives running throughout the entire “novel.” Consider the following: “The ardor of love for your country. An ardent wish to do well at school. // A suburban area. An area of the body. The area of the school hall is 100 meters. // The arena of politics” (21). By attending to these shifts in pronunciation, beginning with the dually pronounced “ardor,” Suárez asks us to consider the disparate legacies of English-language nationalism in Philippine and American tongues. Moving to notions of a suburban body politic, he highlights how English language acquisition structures the Filipino imaginary, colonizing the psychogeography of English speakers with the middle-American suburban “ideal,” also forwarded by its ubiquitous culture industry. Like the history of public education in the Philippines, used by America to spread English as the language of bureaucratic colonialism, this ideological education happens in the seemingly impartial space of the schoolhouse. With the measurement in meters, however, Suárez reminds us that this political violence happens in a globalized political “arena” — same pronunciation in Philippine and American English — undercutting the binary logic of colonizer/colonized and creating a space for subversive influence.

If we look to the conceptual frame of Suárez’s text, we find an additional political turn. By transforming the authority of a dictionary meant to introduce Filipino teenagers to the global workforce into a document of spoken, embodied language, Philippine English makes a radical argument, positing speech over text, regionalism over globalism, and community over capital. Though these arguments permeate Philippine English, I’d like to close with another line from the “A, a” chapter, “I have a Philippine [a]ccent” (8). With this self-referential transformation of the historically othering “accent” into an authoritative pronouncement of Filipino identity, Suárez demonstrates how the inscription of spoken Philippine English into his “instructional” text turns the cognitive colonialism of international English against itself. While acknowledging that one can never fully withdraw from the pervasive nexus of globalized English-speaking capitalism, one can upend its cultural homogeneity by infiltrating the language enforcing it. 

1. See Maria L. Bautista, “Studies of Philippine English: Implications for English Language Teaching in the Philippines,” Journal of Southeast Asian Education 2, no. 2 (2001): 271–95.

2. See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (London: Routledge, 2001).

Stanisław Dróżdż

From Conceptual poem to concept-shape

In 1977 at the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, the artist and poet Stanisław Dróżdż (1939–2009) exhibited an installation piece titled między (“between”). It consisted of a rectangular white box, roughly eleven feet tall, seventeen feet wide, and twenty-three feet long. Inside and out, this box was covered with the letters m, i, ę, d, z, and y, carefully distributed and arranged so that at no point could a viewer spell out the word między horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Additionally, each of the letters appeared about a quarter of the time in each of four positions: upright, rotated ninety degrees to the right, rotated ninety degrees to the left, and upside down. A door permitted gallery-goers to enter what amounted to a room-within-a-room, where the ceiling, walls, and floor were identical in appearance. Once inside, people were surrounded by a swarm of sans-serif letters, each more than two hand-spans in size. They could walk on letters, lean on them, circulate among them.

Dróżdż began in the 1960s as a poet who wrote rather conventional lineated verse. After becoming aware of the international Concrete poetry movement, he began to test more innovative layouts and explore the visual dimension of written language. By the time he constructed między he had ceased thinking of the page as the default location for his language experiments. His works had become increasingly architectural, involving the two- and three-dimensional arrangement of letters and words in public spaces and galleries. Although he continued to refer to his installation-based pieces of the 1970s as poezja konkretna (concrete poetry), he also began labeling them pojęciokształty, a portmanteau word whose two component parts are pojęcie (concept, idea) and kształt (shape, form).

In Polish, konkretna has nothing to do with beton (concrete the building material). It is an adjective that means “substantial,” “real,” or “actual.” Między, accordingly, is a poem made substantial, made real, one that a person can walk around and into. Its letters have been repeated, dispersed, and fixed in grid-space so as to draw attention to the strokes, curves, and dots that together produce a commonplace word. These marks also promiscuously reinvent themselves. A Polish speaker in 1977 would have looked around and seen not only the letters d, e, i, m, y, and z but also the letters N (z rotated 90 degrees), p (d rotated 180 degrees), and w (m rotated 180). And, weirdly, she would have seen exclamation points (i flipped upside down), as if this enveloping word-cloud were terribly! excited! by having guests stop in to have a look. Amid the jumble, too, this hypothetical viewer would have glimpsed words, partial words, and word-ghosts — dzień (day), imię (name), nie (no), miedż (copper), mnie (me), my (we), piwem (with beer), wiem (I know), wy (you), zimę (winter), and so forth — as if she were witnessing inchoate thoughts just beginning to emerge into the world, caught en route between the blank white of preverbal intuition and the inky finality of lineated verse.

Między’s literary and lexical aspects play out, significantly, within a well-defined spatial form (kształt) — a rectangular box — that in turn functions allegorically to convey an underlying concept (pojęcie). Dróżdż provides his audience with an occasion to experience and think about mediation and language. Letters and words come “between” viewers and that which is hidden from sight, in other words, that which, depending on their location, lies either inside or out of the box. Moreover, as a room-within-a-room, między functions as a mis en abyme. Is the “white cube” of the gallery another discursive container that interrupts sight lines? If we step outside into the street, what other word-boxes may enclose us — the city, the state, the Polish United Workers’ Party (which governed Poland from 1948 to 1989)? Are these enclosing frames necessarily bad things, or, insofar as they are granted heightened visibility, made sensible and palpable, might they serve as spaces for creative and generative play?

One could keep going. Like all of Dróżdż’s best pojęciokształty, między is terrifically evocative. Further analysis, however, would reinforce what should already be evident. If one wishes to globalize the history of Conceptual writing — to think about the contemporary work of poets such as Craig Dworkin, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Vanessa Place as one local variant of a much larger storyline — then one cannot rely solely on Anglophone sources and American genealogies. In Unoriginal Genius (University of Chicago Press, 2010), Marjorie Perloff held up Brazilian Concrete poetry as an indispensible precursor; Jacob Edmond’s A Common Strangeness (Fordham University Press, 2012) pointed out that 1980s and 1990s Moscow conceptualism — an avant-garde that included Dmitri Prigov, Lev Rubinshtein, and Vsevolod Nekrasov — should be read as an analogous literary phenomenon. A figure such as Dróżdż, who was already thinking through the relation between linguistically innovative poetry and Conceptual art in the 1970s in Poland, reminds us how much further we must go before we can claim to know the prehistory of the present moment.

Marcel Duchamp features prominently, for instance, in debates today for and against American-style Conceptual poetry. Who is appropriating what found text, and to what end? As a “Conceptual poem,” między would likely send a historically minded critic not to Parisian Dada but to the likes of El Lissitzky’s Soviet Constructivist installation Proun Room (1923), a utopian attempt to use the dynamic interplay of color, shape, and line to make viewers think about the space around them as material to be actively sculpted, formed, and sensuously experienced.

Dróżdż, as Lissitzky’s heir, reprises this effort, albeit with words in place of geometric abstractions. He asks: How might language, as a thing seen and felt, enter into and revolutionize the spaces and environments we inhabit? Conceptual poetry (pojęciokształty) of this variety does not lead ineluctably to commentary on information management, knowledge work, and Internet memes. It pushes one to think about design theory and ecocriticism, and about pioneering shapers of the built environment from Aleksandr Rodchenko to Andrea Zittel.

What concept do you want to wear today? What poem do you wish to sleep in tonight?

The blackness of Holly Melgard's 'Black Friday'

One of the questions I want to ask given the failure of some recent so-called Conceptual poetry is, what are metaphors for the production and experience of black life that do not primarily reproduce the trauma of antiblack racism? What metaphors, although historically part of the maintenance of white supremacy, can be repurposed in the service of sustaining black life? And how?

At the close of his introduction to Home: Social Essays, Amiri Baraka suggests one such metaphor when he writes, “By the time this book appears, I will be even blacker.”[1] Zora Neale Hurston explores a similar idea regarding the relationship between black identity, representation, and text when she writes, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”[2] Though Baraka’s link between the book and blackness is more indirect than Hurston’s, both imagine being, or express a feeling of being, more black within their context, where the context is, most immediately, writing or publication, which is to say, appearing somehow in print. Both writers, among other writers and artists, consider the problem of being represented as black ink in the midst of the whiteness of the pages of their books. This metaphor, that black ink refers to black skin and that white paper refers to white skin, is not the responsibility alone of black writers and artists to articulate and intervene in.

Holly Melgard’s Black Friday, a 740-page book of almost entirely black ink (if it is to be printed), extends from both the intimacy and the gap between writing and racialization (as black) that Hurston, Baraka, and others describe. By contextualizing Melgard’s piece in this intimacy and gap, by wondering about the blackness in Black Friday, I hope to read in a way that contributes to what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney think of as black study, the study of black life, which is life.

Melgard wanted to know the maximal difference between a digital book and a printed one. The way she sought out this difference was by testing what would refuse to print. Would they print an all-black book? Was there a kind of book that could exist only digitally? Wouldn’t Lulu be sabotaging themselves if they somehow missed her scam? Seven hundred and forty pages of black ink would cost more to print than a book with white space between words on a page. But Melgard found an unpredictable limit. While she might have hoped to break the printers, she succeeded in making a book that can only sometimes appear in print.  

The book that can only sometimes appear in print offers another take on the already unstable metaphor regarding print and page, black and white. Although the title and concept of Black Friday refer most explicitly to the circulation of material wealth and the constructions of class identity through big-sale shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday also refers us to the simultaneous void and materiality of the body, and the importance of not controlling the appearance of a black body in particular. Melgard’s poem produces the grounds for a fantasy about minimizing whiteness. The only part of the body of the book that’s white is its tiny page numbers. The context of this work exceeds its own conceptualization, which helps it work in more ways than it set out to. Also, thinking through blackness here suggests potentially shared desires for poetry which might go unnoticed otherwise.

I read Black Friday as indebted to the Black Arts Movement, which delivers one of the most significant calls for poems to exceed themselves by becoming material, so that they, in Baraka’s words, “shoot / guns.” Melgardprovides a small assist to Baraka here. Black Friday is a poem that might destroy the means of its own production. These similar but different dreams of materialization and dematerialization speak to the impotence of poetry alone to effect political change, yet the dream for poetry to be other than itself does not abate. For Baraka, writing leads to intensifying his own racial identity and visibility, which also increases his vulnerability, and, at the same time, it gives him more power, or at least the potential to be involved in a physical response to violence. For Melgard, the distance travelled between the printed and digital book keeps fantasies about minimizing whiteness and becoming blacker in motion, stretching toward the power to effect the physical and political context that renders the work more meaningful than it can say.

In Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, Nicole Fleetwood writes, “Blackness fills in space between matter, between object and subject, between bodies, between looking and being looked upon. It fills in the void and is the void. Through its circulation, blackness attaches to bodies and narratives coded as such but it always exceeds these attachments.”[3] Baraka’s work and Melgard’s project ask about this circulation in particular. They walk us up to or throw us into the gap this circulation circumscribes, the place where an indelible distinction between black and white succeeds but at the same time fails because whiteness relies so heavily on blackness to be itself.

These authors suggest that “becoming blacker” is to succeed at marking an important distinction between metaphor and materiality and, at the same time, it is to suffer in the gap, the failure to maintain this distinction, given the bulk and, ultimately, exhaustion of the work of maintaining it. There is no possibility for poems to shift their own contexts if there is not the possibility of participating in an intensification of blackness.

Poetic form itself cannot contain the violence of antiblack racism. This is to say, my concept for writing and the form my concept takes should not be expected to hold and protect me from growing public awareness, anger, and grief about the incalculable vulnerability black life suffers. Something more, much more than the concept of writing itself is needed, or something less. Much less, much less white is needed.

1. LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Home: Social Essays (New York: William Morrow, 1966), 10.

2. Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” originally published in The World Tomorrow (1928).

3. Nicole R. Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 6.

한 :: Concept : Spirit : Break

I am a Conceptual writer. I’m also “just” a “writer.” I’m a body and a mind and a woman and the child of immigrants, and I am sexual and sometimes contradictory and on the move. And I write.

The ways I hear “Conceptual writing” discussed often feel limited to me, given the capaciousness of the term “concept.” I hear it so often discussed under terms that seek to erase authorship through mechanistically procedural habits or found/repurposed language. There’s additionally a sad whiteness factor to who gets considered under such a banner. It’s an old problem. It persists, along with the way western values privilege abstraction as intelligence or “real” knowledge, demarking what is of noteworthy contribution.

And so, I reiterate. I claim. I mark out. I take. I am a Conceptual writer.

I write out of a nexus of interests and concerns. I write to express my feelings and trace those feelings’ roots. By doing so, I hope to maybe identify some of the social phenomena that perpetuate and create them. I write to consider. I write to consider otherwise

Another way I am a “Conceptual” writer is that my work is often rooted in exploring “concepts.” Furthermore, I am interested in and creatively sustained by certain notions that have zero basis in western historical structures of knowledge.[1]

For example, I am very interested in understanding 한 (han). It’s a “Korean” cultural ethos. I use scare quotes around the adjective “Korean” because 한is an ethos and value — a spiritual structure and feeling — that antedates nation forms or what we imagine the nation of “Korea” to be and mean.[2]

한is a powerful concept for understanding devastation, anguish, bitterness, loss. It’s helpful for understanding suffering and power. I refuse to enlist or name those commonly trotted out thinkers who also consider such dilemmas. It’s not tied to western judeo-christian-ish philosophical dilemmas around power or suffering, and most especially conceptual divisions between perception and abstraction, which it simply doesn’t bother to consider as a question. And that is its immense value to me. In 한, a body is a feeling is a weeping is a history and drowning release. Blood and sky, this 한. Such immensities. I feel 한in some of Myung Mi Kim’s work, in Don Mee Choi’s translations of Kim Hye Soon. I see 한in contemporary Korean cinema, like Mother or Poetry. I feel 한 myself when I sit down and let some of the intense sadness of my family story wash over me. It dances with the slow sweep of a white sash into the sky, held aloft beyond tears. Out of suffering, it lives and rises while it drowns. It has a magma intensity. It burns me down and does not allow me to forget.

This 한 I try to understand is a very specific thing. It’s rich and painful and eludes me but I feel that trying to engage and understand it enriches my ability to make sense of myself in the world — the shapes and powers that inform not just my life and worldview, but countless others who are Korean diasporic subjects.

What my considerations of 한 have also allowed me to explore and inhabit is a richly helpful asymmetry. With 한, things are broken and irreconcilable. There aren’t any patterns one can hold to. It simply moves. And as satisfying as a procedure or strict form can be for me, such shapes do not need to dictate the outlines or contributions of “the conceptual” in my work. Conceptual does not need to be symmetrical or recognizably organized. The body and spirit organize things according to their own structures and tides, and that is also quite valuable for how it moves beyond the orders I can feebly comprehend with my human apparatus. To recognize a space is to have perhaps some illusory master over it. The asymmetries and irreconcilabilities of pursuing and tracing 한 push me into what I do not know and perhaps cannot know.

And for that, I am grateful.

1. If it isn’t western, dare it be a “concept”? The ridiculousness of such a question points to the ridiculousness of invisible biases that seek to appropriate vital alterities only in terms of western ideological parameters.

2. That said, I do think my personal understanding and experience of 한is deeply interwoven with the problematics of nation forms and “Korea’s” subjection to nation-building efforts.