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More Otherness from Conceptual Literature

By Christian Bök

Against Expression (edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith) is an anthology that collects examples of Conceptual Literature, many of which represent what the Oulipians might call acts of “plagiarism by anticipation”—works that may not be written by members of the literary movement, but that nevertheless, seem to reflect the values of such a movement long before the existence of the movement itself. Such works have become touchstones of influence for us, because these works have provided a fund of concepts about writing, to be explored, expanded, recopied, or reformed. Once published, however, such an anthology provides only a snapshot of influences, frozen in the moment of their selection, without the benefit of either additions or deletions, whose inflections might seem necessary as the character of the movement changes and evolves in response to newer works.

Again, I might like to augment this collection of examples by pointing to a limited handful of works, all of which interest me (because I might recognize them as acts of Conceptual Literature, even though their authors might not identify very explicitly, if at all, with such a movement). Again, I make no claims for the aesthetic coherence of such a set, except to think of them as works, whose concepts of writing have goaded my own practice. These cases of conceptualism (like the ones “in the wild”) might deserve to be included, online, in some repository that aggregates the best part of such work for a curated website, whose “anthology” can adjust over time to the proliferation of these texts. I think that such writing exemplifies larger, online trends in the digitization of our culture—whose “new aesthetic,” has lately guided discussion about the future of art itself in the 21st century.

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1. The Exercise and the Oulipo by Louis Bury repeats the premise of Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau (who retells a banal story of one paragraph, using 99 different, narrative techniques); but in this case, Bury generates 99 variations on a single thesis about such a constraint itself, revising one sentence over and over again, in order to showcase the potential of these various devices in the service of their explanation. The fecund welter of these techniques begins to suggest that there is, in fact, no limit to the number of potential, disparate sentences that might be generated from the original template.

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2. Cutting Up Two Burroughs by Mark Leach fulfills a fantasy imagined by Darren Wershler in The Tapeworm Foundry: “andor proceed as though edgar rice burroughs not william s burroughs is the author of naked lunch.” Leach has applied the “cut-up” technique (used by William S. Burroughs) in order to interfuse the stories of jungles (featuring the character of Tarzan) with the stories of junkies (featuring the character of Benway), thereby producing a hybrid result, whose lysergic rambling almost implies that poetry itself represents a kind of robotic writing, generated from an “ape-man” on drugs.

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3. Notes Towards the Complete Works of Shakespeare is a book written by six Sulawesi macaques at the Paignton Zoo in the UK. The book constitutes an experiment, striving to fulfill the adage that monkeys might randomly recreate the works of the Bard, if given an infinite quantity of time in front of a typewriter. The zookeepers have provided the macaques with a laptop, and the output of this interaction with the keyboard has been recorded and then released to the public in the form of a book. The letter S appears to be the most popular, pressed key, while the longest, legible words are “vac” and “lav.”

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4. Gilgamesh for Apes is an initial attempt to write literature for another species. Using “lexigrams,” invented by primatologists who communicate with bonobos through a system of rudimentary hieroglyphs, this chapbook retells the oldest legend in the history of literature, doing so for a readership of alingual primates (who do not have any apparent, narrative tradition, but who might, nevertheless, identify with Enkidu, the ape-man). While the lexigrams are almost certainly illegible to most humans, such unreadability only makes tangible for us, the illiteracy of apes in our own world of signs.

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5. One Billion Coloured Dots by Robert Barry consists of 25 thick books, each of which contains 40,000,000 dots, imprinted, page by page, into a grid of points. Each volume represents a specific colour of dot (be it red in Volume 1 or black in Volume 25—or even a virtually unseeable white in Volume 24). Each dot is a kind of placeholder for a letter that might have otherwise appeared in such a position on the page; hence, the sheer scale of this inscribed magnitude highlights the atomistic dimension of writing itself, exhibiting a kind of coloured alphabet, sorted by hue into a table of molecular elements.

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6. Astronomical by Mishka Henner consists of 12 thick books, made of matte black pages, whose sequence represents a scale-model of the Solar System, extending from the Sun to Pluto (with the Sun appearing on page 1 of Volume 1, and Pluto appearing on page 503 of Volume 12). The width of each page represents a distance of 1,000,000 kilometres, and together, the pages embody the titanic volumes of emptiness between the various planets. To turn each page, one by one, showcases the sheer ennui of these expansive distances, since the reader is confronted repeatedly with the same void of opaque, asemic writing.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, April 16th, 2012 by Christian Bök.