Poetry News

Good Conscience: Rob Halpern Covers Conceptualism & Georges Perec

By Harriet Staff

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A couple of things to relate to the All-Clad conversation on Conceptualism: Rob Halpern penned an essay pre-Bedient for The Claudius App IV, "Conceptual Writing by Rethood Onroda." A striking point about the piece is that, as Halpern footnotes: "'Conceptual Writing by Rethood Onroda' is a cover version of Theodor Adorno’s 'Arnold Schoenberg (1874-­1951),' which appears in English translation in Prisms. My essay is filtered through that essay, from which it takes its cues, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, for at least the first fifty sentences or so, before failing its own athleticism and exhausting its energies in a vagueness at once impossible and precise."

That's not all: Halpern also draws in Matthew Stadler of Publication Studio--who recently "covered" the 1961 John LeCarre novel A Murder of Quality--and a similar cultural remediation effected by Georges Perec in his practice-critiques of the nouveau roman. ("Le Nouveau Roman et le refus du réel.") Halpern's ongoing translation work of Perec (cf. the Chicago Review 54:2/3, the Review of Contemporary Fiction 29.1, and Paul Revere's Horse, issue 5) follows the TCA IV essay on Conceptualism in another piece for The Claudius App V (aptly, "Georges Perec and the Refusal of the Real"), intimating an investment for TCA not only in Halpern's work in general but also in a semi-serial magazine logic that does not resist poetry or criticism that appear to productively (or degeneratively, as the case may be) unfold, no matter a repetition of contributors from issue to issue.

Back to Halpern's take on the matters at hand:

...Kathy Acker elaborated a method of appropriation, and Conceptual Writing remains devoted to this, despite its effort to make the subjective element disappear entirely in its objective material, thereby conforming to cultural processes without resistance. This gives rise to the most popular objection to Conceptual Writing—the objection against its so-­called intellectualism. But this objection only confuses the issue regarding real critique and the sort of blank mirroring that remains external to the object. At the same time, this objection dogmatically exempts poetry from the demands of theory, which has become necessary for all aesthetic mediums as a corrective to their absorption into the very systems against which they rail, an absorption that Conceptual Writing has given itself to, asserting its own uselessness at a moment when it is precisely the uselessness of the thing that ensures its fitness for circulation. The truth is that Conceptual Writing is a naïve movement, not because of its intellectualism but because of the often hapless intellectualizations with which it seeks to justify its work. If any movement was ever guided by the tide of involuntary poetical intuition it is Conceptual Writing. In part self-taught, the language of Conceptual Writing is self-evident. It is only with the greatest satisfaction that Conceptual Writing reduces its materials and means down to its most elementary levels, only to replay those materials inside an entropic system of ever-diminishing complexity and ever-increasing waste. Although its poetry channels all the internal energies of competing egos toward the objective externalization of its impulses, the poetry still longs to appear ego-alien. At the same time, Conceptual Writing unwittingly identifies with the social elect who resist their mission. Indeed, it considers intelligence to be the attribute of those whose works testify to a market-value which bears no normative measure. The paradoxical nature of this formula characterizes Conceptual Writing’s attitude toward authority, which combines aesthetic avant-gardism with a conservative mentality. While inflicting the most deadly blows on authorship to date, Conceptual Writing appeals to the academy by defaulting to its market-driven authority as something inescapable, thus authorizing itself in the last instance. In the eyes of Conceptual Writing, the norms of the market are more or less consonant with the will of culture itself, whose measures it is obliged to make its own. Something reified and hostile to a future that would be anything but a bad extension of the present keeps Conceptual Writing perfectly at home within this order. Signifying its origins story eponymously by referring itself to art-historical conceptualisms, Conceptual Writing belies a tenuous grasp of the arrested dialectic to which it nonetheless belongs, and this has resulted in an uncanny amnesia. Unable to reckon into its utterances an encounter with the limits and contradictions of its self-conceptualization, Conceptual Writing can only concede the dominant terms of a total communication, which of course is nothing but the failure of ‘communication’ to communicate anything but itself. A movement that severs all ties to a lyric tradition whose traces it nonetheless bears so that it alone can underwrite everything of value is able, precisely because of that isolation, to win contact with the moneyed representatives of culture itself and thus to achieve in practice the sort of sovereignty imputed to even its least generative concepts, a sovereignty which enables each of its works to represent the entire genre. And yet, Conceptual Writing’s intolerance of lyric stems from a false sense of its own inexhaustible and inorganic resource, which betrays not only its own finitude, but a cultural logic that endlessly disavows its own ends. There is no greater surprise, however, than when one or another of those writers identified with Conceptual Writing recites just a few lines and such a warm, free and sonorous music resounds untroubled by the arousal one might expect from such singing, which is a mode of performance whose requirements and expectations are burned into the civilized mind, making the seeming nonchalance of such a professional writer all the more beguiling.

Later, Halpern touches on issues of commitment to value, the institutional embrace, and allegory--all of which can be found as points of discussion in conversations alluded to here at Harriet and elsewhere. Read the full essay at The Claudius App.