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A Melancholy Sufficiency in a Review of the Dworkin/Goldsmith Anthology of Conceptual Writing

By Harriet Staff


More on the Los Angeles Review of Books conceptualism tip (you might recall this and this) (oh and then this). Currently, we might feast our eyes on a piece from Peli Grietzer on the Craig Dworkin/Kenny Goldsmith-edited Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, which both Perloff and Yankelevich alluded to in their essays. “Who, these days, is the queen of the genres?” asks Grietzer. Well:

Against Expression — a recent anthology summating the vast tide of recent writers practicing “conceptual poetics,” a literature that explores the aesthetic potential of databases, plagiarism, context, and the materiality of language — represents literary culture’s newest, meanest effort at sufficiency. Compiled by star practitioner Kenneth Goldsmith and lead academic liaison Craig Dworkin to be not so much a treasury of verse as an argument-by-demonstration, this anthology will excite the reader who wants more than normal literature gives her, as well as annoy — and, perhaps, haunt — the one who values her belief that normal literature gives her everything already. It’s the latest news bulletin sent to the culture at large from the dense, hectic, vast, usually invisible sub-world of avant-garde (or “post-avant,” “post-Language” or “experimental”) poetics in America, where literary history is always a dead-serious open question.

For Goldsmith and Dworkin, conceptual writing is what comes about when digital culture and late-late-capitalist globalism become more than even modernist techniques could handle. What they and their fellow conceptualists say we need is a literature that can exist authentically within the epochal condition of (per Goldsmith)

language as material, language as process, language as something to be shoveled into a machine and spread across pages, only to be discarded and recycled once again. Language as junk, language as detritus. Nutritionless language, meaningless language, unloved language, entartete sprache, everyday speech, illegibility, unreadability, machinistic repetition.

As the conceptual writer sees it, we are all text-producing, text-consuming creatures, even before we are creatures who have love affairs or family crises or creatures who have lyrical experiences looking at trees. What literature can’t do to our modern satisfaction by describing or evoking the things of our world, it can do by taking into itself a large part of the stuff that’s actually in that world: tax forms, chats, indexes, letters, daily speech, radio jabber, e-mails, everything that’s ever been on the internet, even literature itself. For those who are still looking for a literary art that answers Schlegel’s specifications, Against Expression is a very exciting book. . . .

Also, it might be sufficient:

One needn’t fully buy into the Romantic quest for an all-encompassing form in order to get excited when a new literary form appears that seems like it can encompass and transcend all the old ones. Like the literary-historical story about the inadequacy of old literary forms to new world-historical stages, the ideal of absolute sufficiency is an idea whose power as a myth is far more relevant than its shortcomings as a theory. It is the beauty of this myth that makes conceptual writing into more than an occasionally interesting enrichment of the already rich repertoire of experimental writing techniques. If there is an aesthetic discovery that makes conceptual writing what it is — a new basic aesthetic element that the practitioners of the new form discovered how to work with, like the Romantics did with the sublime or the Surrealists with the uncanny — it’s the aesthetics of sufficiency.

This aesthetic operates, in conceptual writing, at two affective levels: a manic level and a melancholic level. At the manic level, we are called upon to see the conceptual work as infinitely open, a language-object that is meant not for interpretation but for an engagement in which anything can be legitimately brought to bear upon the text and the text can legitimately come to bear on anything. This is the manic aesthetic of sufficiency, wherein the “thingness” of the text is understood as ground for its connectedness to all the other things within the world. If this all sounds like just more of the old Barthesian “death of the author” spiel, it no doubt is — but it’s the old spiel taken closer to the point of actual implementation than it ever was before.

From the contrary direction, a conceptual work is also guaranteed a melancholic sufficiency, simply by virtue of being what it is and not another thing: Being empty of any meaning or intention other than fulfilling the instructions that it’s a fulfillment of, the work is perfect by default. The conceptual work is thus grotesquely impregnable to skeptical attacks or deconstructive questioning. . . .

Read the full piece here.

Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, October 16th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.