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The Morbidity of Conceptual Literature

Kenneth Goldsmith has reposted an article by Johanna Drucker, and I am hoping to make some idle comments in response to her arguments, with a more detailed response to follow throughout the month:

Johanna Drucker has suggested that Conceptual Literature has begun to enter the twilight of its eminence, on the verge of becoming yet another one of the exhausted movements in the history of the avant-garde. While I am happy to see Conceptual Literature discussed within the context of its historical precedents (even if only to suggest that such writing has merely rehashed the techniques of its more noteworthy precursors), I feel that Drucker might be underemphasizing the degree to which her own observations about the "death" of Conceptual Literature might be recycling historical complaints, no less "unoriginal," no less "uncreative," in their obituaries, which declare the death of a genre, long before its generative potentials have been fully explored or fully absorbed….

Conceptual Literature argues that the romantic bastions of both sublime creativity and eminent authorship have begun to dissolve into a morass of protoplasmic textualities, all manufactured at a prodigious, industrial scale by means of plagiaristic appropriation and computerized recombination. When Drucker says that such writing marks "the end of the era of the individual voice," she proclaims, not the death of our poetic genre per se, but the death of a social milieu, which makes a prior "voice" possible. When Drucker dismisses our movement as outworn, because its derivative imitators are simply "boring," repeating past work, uncreatively and unoriginally, she does not seem to note the irony of her complaint—(given that the founders have also practised this very same type of boredom and mimicry…).

Conceptual Literature has always valued its "nutritionlessness"—(after all, Kenneth Goldsmith takes much pride in being considered "unreadable"). Such a movement may signal a creeping, literary necrosis at the nucleus of poetics itself, and techniques of both proceduralism and appropriation may have even grown stale for current readers, but other techniques of Conceptual Literature have yet to receive adequate, critical attention: for example, illegible writing (as seen in the work of Derek Beaulieu) or robotized writing (as seen in the work of Darren Wershler)—both of which explore the "concept" of writing at its utmost limits. I might also hesitate to argue for the death of a genre at the moment when women (like Vanessa Place, et al.) have just begun to assert themselves so prominently within it….

Johanna Drucker seems wistful and elegiac in tone, perhaps voicing some anxiety about the oncoming, literary "swarm" that threatens to overwhelm individual authorship. Her claims about the death of Conceptual Literature seem, to me, premature and overeager. I might suggest that, if we are actually entering the aftermath of such a movement, perhaps going so far as to use the prefix "post-" to contextualize it, then such a prefix may not indicate the foreclosure of our particular, historical paradigm, so much as the prefix indicates some impatience that, despite all efforts, this persistent, conceptual heritage has not yet been transcended—and thus, preemptively, critics must pretend to have done so, long before they have constructed, or even appreciated, a much more innovative radicalism to replace it….

Originally Published: April 3rd, 2012

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...