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.'"

Originally Published: June 9th, 2008

Kenneth Goldsmith's writing has been called some of the most "exhaustive and beautiful collage work yet produced in poetry" by Publishers Weekly. Goldsmith is the author of eight books of poetry, founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb (http://ubu.com), and the editor I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol...

  1. June 9, 2008

    There once was a professor -- was it my professor, or a friend's? is this a memory of a direct experience, or a memory of a story? I don't remember! -- whose mantra was, "It's less of a dichotomy and more of a continuum." It's unclear whether Bok (please forgive the umlautlessness) intends to oppose intentionality and expressiveness dichotomically or continuumesquely.
    Either way, I don't get it.
    Mannerists express themselves -- they tell tell tell, you bet. F'rinstance, Mr. Bok (p.f.t.u.) seems to set himself up as a mannerist-type proser, and yet that metaphorical equation of literary activity with risking murder of one's spouse is quite a telling humdinger! Verrry expressive!
    The larger dichotomy Mr. Bok (p.f.t.u.) appears to plump for is that betwixt expression and the purported willlessness of aleatoric composition. But 50 or 80 or 90 years of art history give the lie to that.
    Aleatoric art may be the most willful style around. Mr. Goldsmith's summary gets the case false in complicated, paradoxical ways. He does not misstate the case of the artists', ahem, intentions, but the case of the results.
    "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."
    "No Intentions." The artists intend the artworks to be experienced and considered as artworks in the context of Western art history.
    "No expressiveness." The artworks express the artists' ambition to be considered artists. In most cases, they also express the artists' sensibilities by the choice of possible materials from which the piece is drawn. In other words, no aleatoric work can draw from the entire universe of possible materials; the artist gleans beforehand.
    "Not self-conscious." They constantly reflect a consciousness (on the artist's part) of their place in art history. However, the artists sincerely seem to lack the consciousness that these works are highly self-conscious, so this statement is both true and false.
    "Not self-assertive." They assert their place in art history.
    "The authors forfeit control, both over what they 'will' in the text and over what they 'tell' in the text." This statement may be true, because of the artists' sincere lack of self-consciousness regarding their own ambitions and intentions. The works tell a lot more than what the artists will -- they tell a lot more about the artists' wills than what the artists intend. This telling both fulfills and contradicts the artists' wills.
    John Cage's aleatoric works shook my foundations when I encountered them in my teen years and early 20s, and I learned important lessons about attention from them.
    John Cage succeeded in his ambition to become a great Name. He deserved to! But his propaganda about willlessness is a fascinating pile of false advertising.

  2. June 9, 2008

    p.s. I often think of how Cage and Rauschenberg claimed to embrace everything in their art, and yet their works eschewed social engagement and psychology. I love (classic, pre-retread) Rauschenberg and love a lot of Cage too; I don't demand social engagement or psychology in my art experiences; I merely include them in the category "everything."
    I mention the aleatorists' disavowal of psychology because the defeat of willlessness by will just struck me as a painfully amusing "return of the repressed."
    Just noticed a 30-comment dialog on a previous post of Mr. Goldmark's. Apologies if this is all repetition of what went on there; I'll get caught up next time before jumping in.

  3. June 16, 2008
     gary barwin

    I'd rewrite Bok's rewriting of McCaffery's William Tell in the following way. The double dotted i is an icon, an idol for intentionality. It's clear that the apple is about to be felled from the head of the i, It is a Telling, a Willing. If one really wants to make a point over the i, to create an i whose tittlation tells of lack of intent then the McCafferyglyph should be thus:
    Has the apple been felled yet? Has the apple been placed on the head of the i, yet? Is there any intention to bring tension into the bow and shoot the arrow of ego toward the i?
    This i does not reflect the presence of the Will, of the author, of the pointed i.
    A better picture of the rewriting is at: