Four Comments about Conceptual Writing
Kenneth Goldsmith has responded eloquently to naysayers who might object to the principles of Conceptual Literature, doing so through a series of manifestoes here at Harriet—and I hope to add an academic footnote to his many provocations….
Works of conceptual literature have primarily responded to the historical precedents set by two disparate movements in the avant-garde: first, the systematic writing of Oulipian pataphysicians (like Queneau, Roubaud, et al.); second, the procedural artwork of American conceptualists (like Kosuth, Huebler, et al.)—precedents that, in both cases, reduce creativity to a tautological array of preconceived rules, whose logic culminates, not in the mandatory creation of a concrete object, but in the potential argument for some abstract schema. Ideas that we conceive for works now become systemic “axioms,” and the works that we generate from these ideas now become elective “proofs.” The concept for the artwork now absorbs the quality of the artwork itself. The idea for a work supplants the work. The idea renders the genesis of the work optional, if not needless. For the proponents of conceptual literature, a writer no longer cultivates any subjective readerships by writing a text to be read, so much as the writer cultivates a collective “thinkership”—an audience that no longer even has to read the text itself in order to appreciate the importance of its innovation.
I have suggested elsewhere that “conceptual literature” pushes the concept of writing itself toward a set of limit-cases in order to conceive of, hitherto, inconceivable preconditions for writing. I have suggested, for example, that any concept of writing, at minimum, requires only the manifestation of two authorial attitudes: a self-conscious stance toward writing (in which we mean to mean something) and a self-assertive stance (in which we seem to mean something). If we accept this precondition for all writing, then we must conclude that there are, at most, only four possible “concepts” of writing: the cognitive (both self-conscious and self-assertive); the automatic (self-assertive but not self-conscious), the mannerist (self-conscious but not self-assertive), and the aleatoric (neither self-conscious nor self-assertive).
In cognitive writing, we witness the self thinking to itself, alone and aloud, about itself, bearing witness to the intimacy, if not to the quietude, of its own thoughtful confession (as seen, for example, in the legacy of Romantic lyricism, etc.). In automatic writing, we witness the self speaking to itself without thinking about itself, bearing witness to the outburst of its own irrational exuberance (as seen, for example, in the legacy of Surrealist rhapsody, etc.). In mannerist writing, we witness the self as it subordinates its own subjectivity to a rigorous procedure, thereby bearing witness to the outcome of a formalized experiment (as seen, for example, in the legacy of Oulipian mathesis, etc.). In aleatoric writing, we witness the self as it subordinates its subjectivity to an arbitrary procedure, thereby bearing witness to the outcome of a stochastic experiment (as seen, for example, in the legacy of Neodadaist disorder, etc.).
I argue that this “quadrivium” of literature—(cognitive, automatic, mannerist, aleatoric)—exhausts every means of permuting the relationship between intentionality and expressiveness. I even go so far as to argue that each relationship constitutes a “language-game” subject to its own rules of engagement—and these “games” in fact conform to the celebrated categories first conceived by the poet Caillois, who classifies games according to four sets: mimesis (games of mimicry); ilinx (games of vertigo); agon (games of combat); and alea (games of chance)—ergo: cognitive writing (with its demand for a realistic depiction of subjective experience) might thus be a game of mimesis; automatic writing (with its demand for a delirious depiction of subjective experience) might thus be a game of ilinx; mannerist writing (with its demand for a virtuosic overthrow of a procedural constraint) might thus be a game of agon; and aleatoric writing (with its demand for a receptive deference to all stochastic exigencies) might thus be a game of alea. The writer of conceptual literature merely highlights the limit-cases for the most anomalous conditions of these categories.
I know that naysayers may harumph at my claim that there are only four “concepts” of writing—but my logic holds true, so long as you subscribe to my axiom that, at minimum, writing merely dramatizes an attitude toward both self-consciousness and self-assertiveness. I have, however, begun to think that each of these four concepts of writing implies that we must also adopt a specific, literary “unit” as the minimum standard for composition, and this unit (whatever it might be) has varied throughout the history of poetics: for Derrida, it is the mark; for Dufrêne, it is the letter; for Olson, it is the syllable; for Saussure, it is the word; for Lyotard, it is the phrase; for Silliman, it is the sentence; for Ponge, it is the paragraph; for Mallarmé, it is the book. I argue that each of these units of composition define levels of “granularity,” determining what species of poetics might be “conceivable” at such a given scale—and arguments about the legitimacy of a particular aesthetics often boil down to disputes about which scale is, in fact, the most fundamental of foundations for poetry itself. I suggest that (in the case of conceptual literature) the most minimal, standard unit of composition is now the largest example so far theorized—i.e. the database.
Conceptual literature presents us with a set of paradigm-shifting questions about the “concept” of writing. How might poets write in a world where the dominant language is no longer English (or any other lingua franca of humanity)—but instead, a binary coding, written by machines for machines? Are we still writing when we plagiarize our computers? Are we still writing when we let the machines do all the writing for us—or even, in the future, when we let the bacteria do all the writing for us? How “uncreative” can we become, or how “unengaging” can we become, and still consider ourselves to be justifiably interesting poets? How is it possible that, even now, there is still no epic poem about the moonlanding, despite the fact that this event constitutes the most significant achievement of any species in the history of our planet? If poetry is no longer to be found anywhere within poetry (as many conceptualists have begun to argue)—then where do we find it? Is it in the discourse of weather reports, of traffic reports, of sporting reports? Is it in the walkthroughs for our videogames? Do we find it in circuit diagrams and genetic networks? I argue that these kinds of questions, among others, represent crucial regimes of enquiry—but poets have hesitated to broach these kinds of limit-cases, ignoring such anomalies in the concept of writing, out of fear that what has so far been considered “inconceivable” in poetry might actually gain a foothold in the mind of every poet and henceforth become de rigeur….
Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...