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Conceptual Literature in the Wild

By Christian Bök

Darren Wershler has coined the phrase “conceptualism in the wild” to describe writing that has arisen totally outside the purview of poetics, but that has nevertheless seemed absurdly familiar to practitioners of Conceptual Literature, because (without intending to do so) such writing appears to exploit the same kind of uncreative techniques, normally deployed by the avant-garde for the literary purposes of poetry. Such “conceptualism in the wild” does not originate from the institutions of literature, nor does it get validated by the practitioners of literature; instead, such writing points to a parapoetic phenomenon at the crux of meaning itself, showcasing the degree to which language finds its own aesthetic potential through disparate slippages of context, all the while evading any consolidated recuperation by the avant-garde.


Conceptual Literature has certainly redefined what might count as poetry, showing the degree to which banal texts (like weather reports and traffic reports) might exemplify an artistic category of speech, otherwise ignored by poets, who claim to write in the everyday language of the modern milieu. While Conceptual Literature might disrupt the values of our current poetics, the idea of “conceptualism in the wild” showcases the uncanny ability of language to exceed its apparent, intended function, through acts of both reiteration and circulation, shifting to fit the next role. While Kenneth Goldsmith might take pride in having appropriated “uncreative” textuality for literary purposes, “conceptualism in the wild” seems to have preemptively appropriated such artistry from us all, avant la lettre.

Although numerous examples of such writing abound online—I am going to point to only a limited handful of minor cases (all of which have instilled in me a sense of recognition—but to which I have attached little signficance). I might point to these examples as being small sites of inspiration for my own “concept” of writing (but, of course, there are many more to mention—and among my friends in the movement, these six cases probably play just a tiny role in most of our thinking on the subject). I have almost certainly directed readers to these sites through my feed on Twitter (@christianbok), and I make no claims for the aesthetic coherence of the set, except to consider them touchstones, when thinking about literature at the utmost limits of automation, of encryption, of constraint, and of plagiarism:

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1. The Los Angeles Times has preserved an unusual webpage since May 26, 2009—a page that is probably just a template, accidentally posted to the site by an unsuspecting editor. I think that the page is interesting, not because of its self-conscious, self-reflexive placeholders (whose techniques are already a cliché of Conceptual Literature), but because visitors can still post comments in the, mostly unused, window (opening up many possibilities for poetic action in response to this literary graffiti, still lingering in the backwater of the newspaper).
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2. Nanex is a company that monitors robotic trading of stocks, in which algorithms flood the various indexes with thousands of transactions per millisecond, only to vanish—(and hence, some analysts express concern about these bots interfering with the marketplace). Each “flash crash” caused by such a device creates a unique, visual poem, whose robotic writing notates the fibrillations in value. More than 50% of Internet activity is now nonhuman (implying, perhaps, that robots have already started to outpace our own digitized exchanges of text).
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3. Books2Barcodes converts pages from great works of literature into QR codes, readable by robotic devices—and among these acts of impractical translation, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells is my favourite. The text is rendered illegible to anyone without access to camera-vision, and thus the book is reduced to a unique, visual poem—a screen of static, whose message is lost in a spectrum of televised emissions. The service implies that we are halfway to a future, where we might be reading such poems, written by machines for machines.
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4. 419 Eater is a site that plays pranks on Nigerian scammers, who try to perpetrate frauds upon Arthur Dent via email. Dent responds to his spam by inviting the fraudster to participate in an advanced, research project on handwriting recognition—a job that pays $100 per page, if the conman is willing to transcribe, in longhand, all 293 pages from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The guy recopies the entire volume, now posted online (thus restaging the kind of mindless, monastic transcription, typically performed by Kenneth Goldsmith).
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5. An Asperger Dictionary of Everyday Expressions explains an array of disparate metaphors to a readership, frequently challenged by the act of making distinctions between literal speech and figural motifs—hence, this dictionary provides a service to people, who might find poetry (if not everyday language) too ambiguous to apprehend without rigorous guidance. Each entry converts a figurative expression into an impassive discourse (thus providing a kind of metaphor for the compulsive, if not affectless, strategies of Conceptual Literature itself).
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6. Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry is the kind of book that the poet Darren Wershler might have written in grim jest, so as to comment upon the oppressive conditions of copyright in the modern milieu. (The title alone is great.) The fact that poets must now formalize their own standards for the usage of quotation suggests that, although nobody might care about poetry, the threat of anyone caring about it does give us all cause to be fearful about the consequences of actually using the most innovative techniques for generating poetry.
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Kenneth Goldsmith has often joked that he is lucky that nobody cares about poetry, because an important, scholarly resource like UbuWeb might not exist, without the goodwill of the literati, who tolerate his piracies. The “wildness” of poetry arises, perhaps, from such a willingness to court catastrophe through a kind of linguistic experiment, conducted on behalf of art itself, within a community of peers. My six examples of “conceptualism in the wild” imply that, while we might be plagiarizing texts, automating them or encrypting them through procedural discipline, such techniques merely constitute the background radiation for larger trends in the digital culture itself.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, April 10th, 2012 by Christian Bök.