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Conceptual Poetics: Christian Bök
Christian Bök “Two Dots Over a Vowel”
(presented at Conceptual Poetry and Its Others Conference, University of Arizona, Tucson)
Christian Bök began by discussing a group of poets around UbuWeb (Caroline Bergvall, Craig Dworkin, Robert Fitterman, Kenneth Goldsmith, Simon Morris, Darren Wershler-Henry, and himself) to “disavow the lyrical mandate of self-conscious self-assertion in order to explore the readymade potential of uncreative literature.” Bök claims that they resort to a diverse variety of anti-expressive, anti-discursive strategies (including the use of forced rules, random words, copied texts, boring ideas, and even cyborg tools), doing so in order to erase any artistic evidence of ‘lyric style.’ He cited the precedents for the group as being Perec, Warhol, Cage and Bruce Andrews and claimed the group to be inspired by movements such as Oulipo, American conceptual art of the 1960s.
Bök next showed an image of Steve McCaffery’s “William Tell: A Novel,” which is simply a lower case “i” with a colon atop of it instead of a dot. He recalled the story of William Tell and then conflated it with the William Tell episode of William S. Burroughs, where he shot his wife dead playing William Tell. Bök examined the linguistic implications of “the mark,” in terms of self-expression, in relation to a target, as well as a graphic manner of mark making. And then he further extended these metaphors to examine the tension between literatures “will” and how much a work of literature “tells.”
Bök divided writing into four categories:
A. Cognitive Writing: works that embody, as values, both intentionality and expressiveness. These works are both self-conscious and self-assertive. Their authors exert control over both what they “will” in the text and what they “tell” in the text.
B. Automatic Writing: Works that embody, as values, less intentionality and more expressiveness. These works are not self-conscious, but self-assertive. Their authors exert control, not over what they “will” in the text, but only over what they “tell” in the text.
C. Mannerist Writing: Works that embody, as values, more intentionality and less expressiveness. These works are self-conscious, but not self-assertive. Their authors exert control over what they “will” in the poem, but not over what they “tell” in the poem.
D. Aleatoric Writing: Works that embody, as values, no intentionality and no expressiveness. These works are neither self-conscious nor self-assertive. Their authors forfeit control, both over what they “will” in the text and over what they “tell” in the text, doing so in order to maximize the discrepancy between what the Self might intend and what the Text might convey.
Bök claimed that these four categories: Cognitive, automatic, mannerist, aleatoric—this “quadrivium” of literature exhausts every means of permuting the relationship between intentionality and expressiveness.
He concluded by stating: “If conceptual literature has already explored each concept of writing beyond the “cognitive,” perhaps, such literature must now imagine unthought varieties of writing beyond these four categories in order to imagine a new way of playing ‘William Tell.’”