On drowning

A review of 'I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women'

I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women

I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women

Editors: Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, Vanessa Place

Les Figues 2012, 455 pages, $38.00, ISBN 1934254339

A defining moment in the life cycle of any avant-garde movement is its declaration of aesthetic victory over the preceding team of textual innovators. These declarations of victory have proliferated over the twentieth century and into our own, ever since various modernist poets went to war against the previous century’s Romantic avant-garde’s elevation of ordinary vernaculars, “the real language of men” and “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, recollected in tranquility.” Each successive movement has claimed less and less material territory than the militaristic roots of the word would suggest.

From Marinetti’s announcement that Futurists just “want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice,” to Dada’s avowal that “DADA remains within the framework of European weaknesses, it’s still shit, but from now on we want to shit in different colours so as to adorn the zoo of art with all the flags of all the consulates,” the manifesto’s language shifts from that of violent revolution to a description of the highly personal experience of digestion. In its more recent iteration, the manifesto has emerged declaring a radical impotence, a refusal to lay claim even to the low-risk real estate of aesthetic conquest.

“It is not the job of poetry to solve the problems of the world, but to dumbly reflect them,” writes Conceptualist poet Vanessa Place, whose passive stance is echoed by her Conceptualist counterpart, Kenneth Goldsmith, who explains that “the best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read … my books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them.” Place and Goldsmith are the respective editors of I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women and Against Expression, two major anthologies of conceptual writing to come out within a year of each other.

The Conceptualist stance should surprise no one, as the harbingers of a socially critical avant-garde’s doom have been pointed out for years by such ancient voices as the Frankfurt school: “Once registered as diverging from the culture industry, they belong to it … [r]ealistic indignation is the trademark of those with a new idea to sell.” This warning was sounded again by Peter Burger, and then by Paul Mann, and so forth.

Their warnings have long been that the more evolved the institutional support for an avant-garde, the less at odds the movement’s goals will be with those of the powers that be. Coincidentally, Kenneth Goldsmith read in 2011 as part of President Obama’s “Evening of Poetry” at the White House, in a group that included the rapper Common, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jill Scott, and the present poster-poet of mainstream lyricism, Billy Collins. Goldsmith wore a paisley suit and was later singled out for delighted mockery on The Daily Show. Stewart segues from a Clinton joke to an imitation of Goldsmith pinning together his blazer out of wallpaper.

The origins of Conceptualist writing are the subject of some debate. The movement is frequently framed by practitioners in terms of writing’s attempt to “catch up” to the conceptual movement in mid-twentieth-century visual art, exemplified in the work of Sol Lewitt or Andy Warhol. Oulipo, Fluxus, Cage, and the rest of Marcel Duchamp’s lineage are palpable influences. Writing that declares itself Conceptual typically privileges idea over content, and meticulous procedure over emotional expressivity. I’ll Drown My Book doesn’t answer any questions a reader might have about Conceptual writing, but provides an interesting site of discussion in its very resistance to Conceptualism’s aspirations to have no content, as well as its implicit motivation as a response to the male-edited, university-press-published Against Expression.

It would appear that the avant-garde has lost, at least, its etymological street cred as a site of art’s weaponized impact on society, but it is still a battlefield, and an art movement’s manifesto is still, begrudgingly or not, by definition a rallying cry to attract new members. As the language experiment du jour, Conceptual writing has come out against any thought of art’s potential to impact social change, to a sense of resigned institutional complicity, even within the workings of language itself. Vanessa Place describes her own practice as adhering to “the maxim of McDonald’s — provide maximum calories for minimum nutrition … Nada por nada.” Her claim is legitimated by her own work — a criminal defense lawyer, Place cleanly repurposes legal prosecution and defense documents verbatim in her poetry — but is completely contradicted by the work performed in the anthology of female conceptual writers she recently coedited.

The editors of Drown are hardly shouting up at the ivory tower from a cultural wilderness: Place’s work has been enthusiastically sanctioned by Marjorie Perloff (Florence Scott Professor of English Emerita at the University of Southern California), the critic-kingmaker of the moment in avant-garde poetry. The other editors, Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Brown, and Teresa Carmody, are all in various ways well respected and established in that community. The anthology is not explicitly positioned as a challenge to the male-edited, university-press-published project of Against Expression. However, by choosing to put out an anthology of women writers and to call them Conceptualists, the editors assume a practical responsibility as curators. So, I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women is an anthology of writing by women who, according to the rules of anthologies, because they are in an anthology of Conceptual writing, must be Conceptual women writers.

But the reader seeking a clearer definition of this movement will find herself mystified, as the paradigm that governs the works in this slippery, recalcitrant volume is that of discursion rather than commonality. Each contributor is given space, following her piece, to define her relationship to the Conceptualism in question, and the tone of these statements, to a large extent, is a questioning one, in which the writer asks whether her work actually fits under the heading of conceptualism. “‘Conceptual’ Writing Statement,” Sharon Mesmer titles the statement following her piece, while Kim Rosenfield’s statement cracks “Conceptual Writing Is: As If. The portrait of Conceptualism here doesn’t at all adhere with Place’s “nothing; in response to nothing.” There are a lot of somethings, which arguably, in proliferation, amount to nothing-ish but don’t have the high, clean gloss of Nothing.

Clearly, the Conceptual part of this anthology isn’t in the content. If there is a polemic in its pages, it makes its arguments in the very large (organizational) and the very small (minutiae and notes), not in the poems between. After all, it is still an anthology. So, starting big: the title seems to quote from Prospero’s last speech in The Tempest, in which the sorcerer renounces all his magical implements and powers, having realized all the trouble he’s caused in meddling with the natural state of things. In other words, he announces that he’s giving up on tricks and deception, accepting things just as they are. Prospero sees his “choice” about how to understand and operate within his reality as a black and white one (all magic or nothing). In fact, the editors tell us the allusion has nothing to do with Shakespeare and comes instead via the poet Bernadette Mayer, in her collection The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters. The rough magic of the old male enchanter acknowledged and abjured, at once, this drowned book represents Prospero’s choice as nothing but gray area. The book offers so many definitions of Conceptualism that the act of definition becomes purely gestural, the concept ‘definition’ stretched to a self-defeating breaking point, the black and white of the procedural manifesto dissolved in a haze.

The works here are divided into four categories: Process, Structure, Matter, and Event, which are each further broken down into five or six subheadings. The subheadings are descriptive or metaphoric, not prescriptive to the processes employed (“prescriptive” here meaning referent to a set of rules, thus explaining the process by which the work was created). The most recognizable mainstays of conceptualist practice (things like neo-Oulipean formal constraints and purist appropriation) have their place in this choir, the techniques. The overall effect is quite the opposite of that coldly objective, voiceless gloss which is typically associated with Conceptual writing: the book looks positively Dionysian, with little to no clear criteria for the choice of what goes into the categorical slots. Nada Gordon and Katie Degentesh, both of whom restrict their poems to text found online, clearly belong in the Structure (appropriation) category, but mightn’t Mette Moestrup’s readymade and Jen Bervin’s collages fit equally well in Event and Matter, respectively?

The challenge of presentation is the central riddle of any anthology, of course, and as a form anthologies are notoriously slippery. Still, for a movement whose ostensible ethos is to present such a clean, impenetrable surface that the reader is denied point of entry, isn’t this crazy quilt format counterproductive to Conceptualism’s aesthetic goals? How are we to read the categories, or understand them, when we haven’t been given proper instruction! When compared to Against Expression, which is clean, unified, and seminar-ready, Drown is a hot mess. But perhaps the excessive framing gives us a clue: in asking every contributor to offer her own definition, or list of dissatisfactions with the term “Conceptual,” are the editors letting us know that they’re in on the joke?

Structurally, the anthology’s intention could be read in a generous spirit, modeled to some extent after écriture féminine, in its privileging of cyclical, nonlinear textual organization. Such an anthology might please Hélène Cixous or Luce Irigaray, with its frayed and fragmented multitude of perspectives, rather than a uniform “masculinist” formalism. To put it another way: resistance to an “easy read” is legible as a feminist gesture. The discourse has no center, and this is admirable, but don’t start the party yet. While this isn’t your instructional handbook of Conceptualism and/or your poetics seminar syllabus, the absent center isn’t just a whirligig; it’s an absent lyric subject, who, in many of these pieces, seems eerily to reappear. Vanessa Place, in her afterword, writes, “do I consider all the work within this anthology to be conceptual writing? Yes and, more naturally, no.” Here perhaps she gives us an answer as to the question of how to read this volume, and the answer is neither, or, whichever. The one whose job it is to make sense, according to Place, is the reader, “who is the thinker who is the village explainer, given that this one is also the village.”

The question remains as to why the categories of Conceptual and female writers need overlap. In her introduction, Caroline Bergvall makes a compelling case for the two as linked due to the “existential dilemma” of female writers being inextricably linked to the impulse towards Conceptual writing in the late twentieth century. Beginning with a consideration of Kathy Acker’s practice (the negation of her own voice through plagiarism), Bergvall writes that this literary mode is “a way out of a societal status quo that must silence or symptomatize the female, minoritarian or differential writer.” She points to the feminine-conceptual connection, arguing that “conceptual methods paired with psychoanalytic and specifically feminine investigations have provided an ideal combination to seek out the somatic, cognitive and symbolic bases for language and gender development.” Whether or not we believe the argument that gender fundamentally influences the way we experience and use language, the idea is certainly an appealing way to understand this book’s chaotic, unwieldy energy.

The anthology frequently explains itself as an ameliorative action against a history of exclusion. In her introduction, Laynie Brown writes “the book began for me with the problem of the under-representation of women, particularly in key moments when movements begin to take shape … it is often at the stage of anthologizing that numbers start to shift so that women are not adequately represented.” The desire to be represented, to be historically heard, is echoed in a number of the works here, for example Juliana Spahr’s Influence & Originality: “to hell with the Black Mountain poets even though they had taught her a lot.”

On the one hand, this book seems to wants to follow Spahr’s sentiment: to hell with what they taught us; let’s mark our own territory. On the other, the book suffers from a pronounced uniformity: the individual statements are all written in a default theoretical prose style, a symptom that this avant-garde’s discourse is already comfortably couched in the institution of the university. The knee-jerk use of academic jargon is pervasive in other realms of the arts and culture industry (wall text, anyone?), but rarely are so many examples of this form placed side by side. These statements on poetics, which follow each writer’s work, are in many cases elucidating and enhanced by the sophistic language. Nonetheless, they evidence an implicit truth about the state of this movement, and of the poetry industry in general: most jobs in the field are academic, and the reception to one’s work will generally be tempered by the reaction of academic criticism. The book doesn’t endorse this tendency without self-reflexivity: both Laynie Brown and Caroline Bergvall explicitly address discomfort with demarcated movements and schools in their editorial introductions. Bergvall writes, “the conceptual poetics collated in this collection are filled with the meandering troubles of the term itself, as much as by the suspicion many female writers have harbored for its historical umbrella and initial propensity for exclusionary models.” Bergvall is pointing out that historically, the term “Conceptual” has been connected with the agenda of the male-dominated art world, and that the term “Conceptual writing” was brought to the public eye by a core group of men (including Goldsmith and Dworkin) whose influence remains primary.

However discontent its residents, any anthology, or movement for that matter, is by definition exclusionary. Poetry, contentious as its factions may be, is still a very small world. Many of the writers here are connected through clearly traceable links that are social, pedagogical, poetic-professional, or in several cases romantic. These connections are visible in the representation of certain schools (Black Mountain for Spahr, Kathy Acker, and Lee Ann Brown, for instance), or in the contributor’s references to one another. Jen Bervin’s piece, a collage of Susan Howe quotes, is 250 pages before Howe’s own contribution to the anthology, while Judith Goldman quotes Joan Retallack at a distance of roughly 200 pages. As Place quotes her fellow conceptualist, Craig Dworkin, “movements (like nation-states) are perhaps better defined by principles of exclusion rather than inclusion.” Place acknowledges that exclusivity is built into a movement, without Bergvall’s “suspicion,” and this anthology certainly reflects an exclusivity. However, the brand of exclusion is more social than aesthetic, as this is obviously an interlinked community, and perhaps the choices of whose work to include were motivated more by social commonality than by ideological or aesthetic agendas.

Many of the works in this volume don’t quite fit the brand identity advertised on Drown’s cover. Kristen Prevallet’s piece is essentially a flaneur-like record of her walks around Brooklyn, the Conceptual stakes of which are unclear. Jen Hofer’s hand-sewn quilts of paper are essentially collages. Without it being a question of the quality of either of these pieces, their inclusion should have been exegetically backed up by the editors. Other writers are excluded that ought not to have been, many of whose work actually does operate within Vanessa Place’s orthodox definition of Conceptualism to the letter, such as Divya Victor, Trisha Low, Holly Melgard, or Kristen Gallagher.

At a post-reading Q&A at the Poetry Project in St. Mark’s Church in October 2012, an audience member asked Vanessa Place why she had felt the need for an anthology of Conceptual women writers. Place responded that she simply wanted Conceptualism to be taken seriously as a movement, and felt that any serious literary movement needed an anthology of women writers. While probably tongue-in-cheek, this comment does imply that the proposed reading of this anthology as an embodied feminist critique is probably idealistic. Yes, of course, the idea of a gendered form is old-fashioned and callow, but the idea that balancing the representational scales in order to appear legitimate is the best that we can hope for now is just depressing. Perhaps there’s something pragmatic and positive in this possible future of the avant-garde as more like political lobbying than aesthetic and social revolution. After all, these sorts of strategies — of strength in numbers, in the ritual performance of a unified front — have worked in political revolutions, so why shouldn’t they work in an aesthetic one? Perhaps, along with the rejection of the Romantic lyric subject, we have also rejected the notion of the naïve artist in favor of the cynical artist, a strategic purveyor of manifestos and intramural social networks.

Caroline Bergvall writes of two principal ways, two main avenues, by which Conceptual poetics can avoid “production fetishism,” meaning selling out one’s lived experience in favor of uniformity, which in turn connects to the totalizing pressure of capitalism in art, and the ensuing institutionalized avant-garde. The first of these avenues is engaged disengagement: a willingness to constantly examine the means of one’s own intentionality. The second of these avenues is engaged disengagement: a willingness to accept the laughable obsessiveness of one’s intent in the face of the consumption machine. Bergvall’s formulation here, while playful, is the anthology’s most earnestly self-reflexive contribution, lightly addressing the pressures of innovative aesthetics, the utopian project of an anthology, and the future of the artist in the institution.

What is ultimately fascinating about this anthology is the enigmatic way in which it fails. The anthology resists the reader, resists its own structure, remains engagedly disengaged. If this book is supposed to be a strike in the conceptual campaign, why doesn’t it adhere to the operating principles of the movement? After all, if your movement claims its only intended conquest is an impenetrable, reflexive aesthetics, then the book should perform that function as an object. Or, if the book’s messy sprawl and haphazard structure is meant to be a social, communal gesture, why not say so? In other words, the book fails to function either as a conceptual art object, which would be a tautology, or as an anthology, which would be a collection of works arranged to appear as if based in a common aesthetic goal. This failure, however, if not wholly deliberate, has great value in revealing the conflicts and competing interests in this, as in any, avant-garde movement. The lack of editorial restriction allows the fissures to show in an anthology ostensibly meant to portray a unified front, and these fissures let the book communicate more about the state of the avant-garde, and about writing as women, than a polished nonexpressive text ever could. The poet Kim Rosenfield has one of the last entries in the volume. In her statement on conceptualism, she writes: “IT IS A WORLD OF MIRRORS. IT IS A USELESS AND OBSCURING FICTION THAT THERE IS A WORLD.” This book aligns itself in title with a movement that privileges an idea over content, yet the volume itself is much more concerned with content than the representative idea. As a result, the mystifying effect of the individual works is subsumed by the mystifying question of how to read the book, and where to find the commonalities or to understand the categories.

Perhaps Conceptual practice, and the multitude of its pursuant manifestos, is most effectively communicated to the reader at large when understood as a return rather than an advance, as a ritual engagement with language as a material imbued with innate meaning. In his remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough (a response to James George Frazer’s anthropological study of magic and religion), Wittgenstein critiques Frazer’s study as epistemologically flawed, for failing to engage in an intellectually satisfying way with his subjects’ rituals due to his incomprehension of language’s magical and symbolic nature. On Frazer’s construction of projected meaning on rituals he didn’t understand, Wittgenstein writes, “Compared with the impression which the thing described makes on us, the explanation is too uncertain. Every explanation is after all a hypothesis.” By explaining a multitude of rituals simultaneously, the book evades any hint of evangelism, an admirable feat for any anthology, especially one so full of manifesto.