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‘Is There a Masculine Genius?’ Three New Conceptual Works Reviewed by Blake Butler
At Vice, Blake Butler looks at conceptual writing with the help of three new books he’s taken pleasure in: Vanessa Place’s Boycott (Ugly Duckling Presse), Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters (Random House), and Stephanie Barber’s Night Moves (Publishing Genius). Butler’s feeling on this type of work in general:
As interesting as any idea might be, I often find myself thinking: OK, now what? Cool that you took the time to think of that novel concept, and then to actually spend time and money bringing it to life, but was it really necessary? And isn’t it somehow just as self-serving to insist you make your idea a reality, a thing that can be touched and held and considered, instead of just thinking of it and moving on? Then, other times, it’s quite refreshing. It feels good to pick up a book completely free of necessary imagination, fancy narrative, the old dead tools of storytelling and myth making. The same way a diamond skull Damien Hirst shat out to invent money is beautiful as much in context as in the simple glinting grin of death, some conceptual works force your brain in odd directions simply by existing, and the clash between the feelings is maybe even more interesting than the work itself.
Some good words for Boycott:
Inside the red slipcover are three slim brown pamphlets, unmarked on the outside. Inside, the paper is cream-colored, with each volume containing a different frame for what will come: Introduction & Epistemology, Ontology, and Ontic. The text itself, one realizes while reading, is familiar, if at the same time slightly off. Boycott takes its body from a group of famous iconic feminist texts, though all references to the feminine gender have been masculinized. So, for instance, the essay “Is There a Feminine Genius?” has been changed to “Is There a Masculine Genius?”; “pussy envy” has been turned to “dick envy”; a reference to Hannah Arendt has been changed to Hans Arendt.
The result is something strangely funny and offsetting at the same time. The discussion of the repression of men as artists seems absurd—insane, even—as if concocted from a completely alternate history in which men have been enslaved. How ridiculous to find someone pleating on behalf of the patriarchy in such a manner: “Man must write his self: must write about men and bring men to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies…” For me, a straight white male, reading the texts as if these calls for strength were aimed at me felt at once ridiculous and embarrassing. On the other side of the fence, the arguments for men made in the voice of men had me rolling my eyes, feeling ridiculous, bored, regretful, commiserative, empathetic, violated.
On Goldsmith (e’en more on that transcription at the NYT): “It is a uniquely affective historical catalog of time in language and seems alive in a way most other attempts at understanding atrocity could never be.” And a bit on Barber, whose Night Moves is comprised entirely of YouTube comments from Bob Seger’s 1976 hit “Night Moves”:
I was pleasantly surprised at how immersive and addictive Night Moves turned out to be. Somehow—and perhaps this is part of the conceptual poetry movement as a whole—what would seem cliché or stilted if presented as someone’s original idea, takes on a whole new texture when offered as something found, the way a phone number means something different when found in a toilet stall. Dozens of little narratives and jokes and emotions rise out of the transom of people arguing over whether Seger sucks and meld into thoughts and questions about what happened to the people that we knew once, whether America sucks, how we all ended up wherever we are now.
Read all here. For kicks: