Poetry News

Keston Sutherland on 'Anti-subjectivity' & Conceptualism

By Harriet Staff


For another take on the conceptualist debate, aim your reading glasses at this essay by Keston Sutherland at Fiery Flying Roule: "THESES ON ANTISUBJECTIVIST DOGMA" considers an initial statement that "'[a]nti-subjectivist' accounts of art are 'Romantic' in origin and were first asserted contemporaneously with the 'subjectivist' accounts of art which they are usually claimed to supersede." Furthermore:

2. The logic of supersession, redundancy, obsolescence, not being able to do X anymore, etc., derives from the aesthetic and commercial discourses that surrounded 19thC French painting on the fringes of the Paris Salon. Its adoption by contemporary poets is uncritical and unreflexive in two principal respects. First, it is a “logic” purified of its specific historical context, which was a history of French revolutionary violence, of the recurrent threat of revolution, of political restoration and of the early capitalist transformation of society. The logic of 19thC French art history is abstracted from its real historical contexts and grossly simplified into a mere parody of the profit motive. Second, the exponents of this superficially art-historical (but actually profoundly unhistorical) logic are not the refusés, they are the exhibitionists of the main Salon.

3. The most important impetus to anti-subjectivism in 20thC theory came from Louis Althusser, under the rubric of “anti-humanism”. As Jacques Rancière wrote in his first book, which was an attack on exactly this tendency in Althusser’s thinking and on its lamentable expression as reactionary evaporation in the battle of 1968, Althusser’s ban on “subjectivisme gauchiste” [leftist subjectivism] was a means of legitimating his “coupure épistémologique” [epistemological break], which was essentially nothing but an intellectual justification of intellectuals at the traditional expense of workers’ rights to speak for themselves and in their own language. The Althusserian ban on subjectivism is precisely a ban on proletarian self-expression. The same interdiction resonates in a freshly subtilized form in the contemporary ban on “subjectivity” in poetry.

4. None of the poets who says that the subject has been expelled or eradicated from her work has ever given a remotely coherent or persuasive account of the “subject”.

5. In an early essay on Beethoven written in 1937, Adorno can already be heard referring wearily to “the cliché “subjective”“, which was just as common a term of reprobation during the Third Reich as it is today. Artists and critics have been “rejecting” the “subjective” for hundreds of years, usually on whatever sketchy, skeletal, unexamined terms are nearest to hand. The antisubjectivism now being perpetuated by contemporary poets has no new features and it does not respond in any meaningful detail to its own historical moment.

6. More significantly for so-called “conceptual” poets, the refusal to give a conceptual account of the “subject” whose rejection defines the schema of their art is a manifest expression of contempt for the very work of conceptual definition itself. Conceptual poetry does no conceptual work toward defining the ”subject” whose rejection is its principal dogma. Poetry dismissed by conceptual poets as Romantic, subjective, expressive etc. often does a great deal more of that conceptual work than “conceptual poetry” does.

There are more points, including one about antisubjectivity's implications for a theory of labor as opposed to its effecting a consideration of value [Sutherland's italics]. Read it all here.

Originally Published: May 9th, 2013