To ward off a diabolical poetry

Note: what follows is a transcript of Christian Bök’s talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Vanessa Place responds to Bök’s talk in a related essay in this feature; video of the talk appears above. 


Stephen Collis in “Towards a Dialectical Poetry”[1] takes issue with the cultural prestige of Conceptualism, arguing that, while this aesthetic movement has subsumed all discussion about the techniques of the avant-garde, the movement has done so by overselling these aesthetic techniques as poetic innovation, while undermining their political capacities for social revolution. Collis suggests that Conceptualism lacks a politics of collective engagement; instead, the movement prefers to celebrate the achievement of the superhuman individual who endures the demands of uncreative, immaterial labor under the aegis of capital, doing so as a feat of athleticism that does nothing to eliminate the onerous demands of such toil. And hence Collis implies that Conceptualism is merely a symptom of neoliberal capitalism, with little to offer on behalf of collective resistance to such alienation. While I consider Collis one of my closest friends in the avant-garde, admiring both his aesthetic practice and his political activism, I do feel that his arguments constitute a commonplace devaluation of Conceptualism — a devaluation that must ignore the novel arena for the politics of such a movement, in order to protect the exclusive dominance of an avant-garde whose concepts have begun to wane in aesthetic influence.

Kenneth Goldsmith constitutes the august target for such attacks upon Conceptualism, in part because he has secured a public degree of honorific attention that outshines the aspirations of even his most ambitious naysayers. Whenever Goldsmith secures the limelight (by addressing Barack Obama at the White House, for example, or by addressing Stephen Colbert on [Comedy Central]), Goldsmith sets an elevated standard of achievement for other poets, who have, in the past, taken solace in the fact that, while they might not have garnered any fame for their poetry, at least the status of all other poets has been levelled by an equitable obscurity, evenly distributed to everyone just like any other communal resource under socialism. Critics who complain about Goldsmith often deploy the kind of tactic used by online trolls to harass their targets, discrediting the reputability of a person by arguing that such a person is a “fake,” whose privileged recognition remains unwarranted or unjustified, because such attention has resulted from a corrupt scandal, with no foundation in the social values that the online trolls both uphold and defend. Goldsmith is thus a con man at worst, or, at best, one of the hapless stooges of capitalism, not truly radical, not truly leftist, not truly engaged.

Seth Abramson, for example, remarks that Kenneth Goldsmith offers us only “a scam,” as audacious as any plot by a right-wing politician, like Karl Rove (who exploits the weaknesses of his allies for his own gain — except that, in this case, the scam purports to advance poetry when, in fact, it aspires to destroy poetry by rendering all poets superfluous, with arguments that promote a “truckload of bullshit”).[2] Kent Johnson describes Conceptualism as “the new right-wing of the […] ‘avant-garde,’”[3] and Amy King argues that, far from proposing a radical, leftist poetics, Conceptualism aspires to “secure status” as a “marketable group,” recycling capitalist strategies of fame, through sensational, proprietary acts of publicity.[4] Keston Sutherland even goes so far as to argue that when Conceptualism extols the “antisubjective” dehumanization of authorship, the movement simply normalizes the oppression, if not the effacement, of individual expression under capitalism: “the readers of this work are not agitated into fighting against capital but only pestered into moaning about conceptual poetry.”[5] Stephen Collis wades into this fray, arguing on behalf of a dialectical alternative to Conceptualism — one not so much new-fangled, progressive, or exploratory, but one “utopian” in its mandate.

Collis suggests that the future of poetry must be “dialectical” (insofar as poetry must sustain a tension between twinned forces in opposition); he goes on to argue that the binary debate between stodgy, Canadian lyricists and trendy, Canadian neophiles does not qualify as dialectical, because this dissensus remains inauthentic — nothing more than an “oppositionality,” merely “performed,” like theater (and he cites my “Cage Match” with Carmine Starnino as symptomatic of this “false binary,” in which the lyricist is inarticulate, while the neophile is entertaining — but without any radical outcome).[6] While I might dazzle the audience with my wit, my “rhetoric tends to be saturated with commodification,”[7] since (according to Collis) I argue only for the expansion of “market shares” by the avant-garde (thus implying that my theater is not agitprop enough for his politics). He suggests that alternatives to this simple debate remain, likewise, insufficient in their dialecticism, because they obscure the contradictions inherent to such opposition, producing the “smoothed surface of the commodified object.”[8] The “post-avant,” for example, responds to lyricists and neophiles alike, by striving either to neutralize them or to synthesize them (making them either equalized in value or interbred in style).

Collis goes on to note that, if Conceptualism has come to dominate the avant-garde, it has done so by being inauthentic, reappropriating “in hindsight” an old set of techniques, declaring them “new,” even though they have been used for more than a century by other poets.[9] Collis argues that Conceptualism is nothing more than an act of “marketing,” rebranding each technique so as to turn it into what King might call a “capitalist […] tool of sensationalism,”[10] rendering these tools ahistorical, if not unpolitical, in their utility. Even though Collis might acknowledge the social merits of UbuWeb (a site that archives the work of the avant-garde, making it accessible to everyone for free),[11] Collis nevertheless argues that Conceptualism does not use such techniques of reappropriation to return poetry to the commons for the sake of both artful collaboration and social dissemination; instead, Conceptualism uses such techniques of reappropriation purely for the sake of criticizing the intentionality, if not the expressiveness, seen in verse by lyric poets, who invest too much capital in the individuality of both their affect and their genius. Collis reiterates that Conceptualism testifies to the failure of radical poetics, since the movement celebrates its own collusion with the fiscal values of capital itself.

Collis even goes so far as to say that, if Conceptualism has a politics, its radicalism seems entirely dystopic in its vision, “wallowing in a […] wasteland of machines, […] where the bacteria that outlive us […] go on composing odes to our annihilation.”[12] Rather than enabling a collective radicalism (which might forestall such a dystopia), the movement prefers to mirror the alienating banalities of the modern milieu. Such a movement only lionizes the athleticism of the superhuman individual, who can fulfill the futurist drudgery of boring labor, reinstating subjectivity itself as a kind of autopilot, “emptied of its […] humanizing creativity.” The movement aspires to achieve the “heroic” purity of a formal method, whose “fundamentalism” does little more than enshrine the impoverishment of aesthetic criticism itself — perhaps by celebrating the banal value of all things uncreative, unoriginal, unengaging, unreadable, uninspired, uneventful, etc. The movement does not seek audiences among other poets; instead, it addresses the easily miffed “bourgeoisie,” doing so by arguing “against expression,” even though such acts of expressiveness might actually serve to give vent to the collective opposition from all the varied groups, if not poetic voices, otherwise marginalized by capitalism itself.

Leftist critics have to ignore a lot of facts about Conceptualism, however, in order to claim that the movement is apolitical, if not capitalist, in its social agenda. Collis might concede, for example, that among all the works by Goldsmith, UbuWeb constitutes “the most political, ‘conceptual’ work” — but despite being an expert upon the radical history of the commons (and its privatization), Collis does not reflect much upon the fact that all the acts of reappropriation at UbuWeb establish a kind of digital commons, whose utility results from the excess outlay of unpaid labor dedicated to a general economy of the gift — an economy that insists upon keeping the achievements of the avant-garde in the public domain. Maria Ardin tweets that UbuWeb accomplishes a hard task: “[w]orking-class access to the avant-garde, rather than the avant-garde pandering to the working class.”[13] Collis may forget that Conceptualism expresses its political advocacy for such a digital commons in many manifestos, including Commonspace (by Darren Wershler and Mark Surman), which argues at length for a radical economy of sharing, in which a crowd of users can participate in a nonhierarchical, nonprescriptive community of creative exchange, with no user monopolizing the benefits of this communal activity.[14]

When leftist critics argue that Conceptualism does not participate in any collective engagement with radicalized communities, such critics must ignore the fact that many poets from the coterie have built networks of radical economy outside the purview of capital, experimenting with enterprises not governed by profit. Kenneth Goldsmith, for example, has not only maintained the archive of UbuWeb; he is also one of the founding curators of the 89 Plus Project, which has set out to publish one thousand poets under the age of twenty-five from all around the world, making this work available for free, under the motto: “Poetry Will Be Made by All!” Derek Beaulieu has, likewise, published more than two hundred writers in more than 525 publications through his micropresses at both No Press and Housepress, giving much of this work away for free. Vanessa Place has, moreover, promoted feminist networks of writers through Les Figues Press, sustaining a neglected community of otherwise unpublishable practitioners. While the central coterie of Conceptualism might sell its books for a price (even to the point of best-sellerdom), nearly all titles published by this coterie remain available, either to obtain or to peruse, for free. I doubt that other poets in other camps can make such a claim for their oeuvre.

When leftist critics argue that Conceptualism practices a purely formal method (whose rules so depreciate expressive authorship that no work can express a political viewpoint), such critics must ignore the many works that, despite being “against expression,” still acknowledge the political overtones of a self, expressed obliquely through such a method. Darren Wershler in The Tapeworm Foundry, for example, lists all his great ideas for potential, aesthetic projects, giving his ideas away for free so as to argue that ideas have become so cheap that no artist can corner the market on poetic genius. Nick Thurston in Of the Subcontract delegates the writing of poetry to precarious laborers at Amazon Mechanical Turk, exploring the ethics of outsourcing uncreativity to others. Robert Fitterman in Holocaust Museum transcribes, verbatim, the captions to every photo displayed in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, exploring the degree to which language itself provides an inadequate substitute for the absence of the visible subject, now effaced by history. Vanessa Place in Boycott expunges all references to femaleness in iconic essays by feminists, exploring the degree to which she can protest the masculine discourse of patriarchy. All these works are obviously “political.”

Conceptualism does have a coherent politics, but its expression takes place within the social milieu of a digital commons — an arena or a niche not yet cogently occupied by poets in other camps. Moreover, leftist critics who complain that the readymade, stylistic techniques of Conceptualism are not new do not recognize that, after the global spread of the Internet, such techniques have now become different, if not innovative, within our current panoply of cultural contexts, all of which remain unprecedented in the history of our sociological relationship to technology itself. Kenneth Goldsmith cannot be a poetic cipher for the neoliberalism of Karl Rove, especially if Verso Books — the most left-wing, academic publisher in the world — has entered into a contract with Goldsmith to publish his masterpiece, Capital. (Verso Books publishes left-wing radicals — not right-wing fuckheads.) The naysayers fail to see that unperused obscurity is no longer a radical gesture for a poet under capitalism; such a gesture is just business as usual. The naysayers fail to see that you cannot be a neoliberal capitalist, if you steal poetry, then give it away for free. The naysayers fail, ultimately, to see that such poetry has got to be the least profitable (and thus the least satisfying) way to exploit the lives of others.

1. Stephen Collis, “Towards a Dialectical Poetry,” Lemon Hound, September 27, 2013.

2. Seth Abramson argues that “Kenneth Goldsmith […] offer[s] […] a scam every bit as […] audacious as Karl Rove’s use of his own allies’ weaknesses as political ammunition.” Seth Abramson, “The Most Interesting Thing About Conceptualism Is It Doesn’t Exist,” Volta, August 6, 2013.

3. Kent Johnson, “Notes on Safe Conceptualisms,” Lana Turner.

4. Amy King, “Beauty and the Beastly Po-Biz, Part 2,” The Rumpus, July 16, 2013. 

5. Keston Sutherland, “Theses on Antisubjectivist Dogma,” Anguish Language, May 1, 2013.

6. Stephen Collis notes that both lyricists and neophiles constitute themselves through the performance of both mutual exclusion and mutual rejection: “An archetypal manifestation of this performed oppositionality can be seen in the 2009 ‘cage match’ between Carmine Starnino […] and Christian Bök [both of whom] happily take up their scripted roles, in this staged production.” Collis, “Towards a Dialectical Poetry.”

7. Stephen Collis notes, with a modicum of chagrin: “Bök likens his […] aesthetic to ‘carving a Lamborghini out of titanium with a laser [….].’ Bök is entertaining, but his rhetoric tends to be saturated with commodification.” Ibid.

8. Stephen Collis notes: “Synthesis and hybridity obscure contradiction, producing the neatly smoothed surface of the commodified object.” Ibid.

9. Stephen Collis notes: “I have a problem with […] conceptualism’s […] marketing of itself […] as the newest-of-the-new.” Ibid.

10. Amy King, “Beauty and the Beastly Po-Biz, Part 1,” The Rumpus, July 15, 2013.

11. Stephen Collis notes that, of all the works by Kenneth Goldsmith, “UbuWeb […] is perhaps his greatest, and certainly his most political.” Collis, “Towards a Dialectical Poetry.”

12. Stephen Collis emphasizes that, if conceptualism is political, “[t]he politics here […] [are] dystopian at best”; hence, “conceptualism might be read as a cautionary tale — […] the aim of which might be that we are ‘scared straight.’” Ibid.

13. Maria Ardin, @typingpoetry, Sep 14, 2014.

14. Mark Surman and Darren Wershler define “commonspace” as “the collective, many-to-many world […] online” — a network that epitomizes connected diversity. Mark Surman and Darren Wershler, Commonspace: Beyond Virtual Community (Toronto: Financial Times, 2001), 6.