DYSTOPOETICS: THE BROKEN DREAM OF CONCEPTUALISM
Beaulieu, Braydon. “Dystopoetics: The Broken Dream of Conceptualism.” FreeFall 25.3 (2015): 25–30. Print.
Whereas lyric writing is rooted in expression, conceptual writing is a non-expressive poetics. In lyric, the speaking “I” is the measure of both perception and response. The reader experiences both the poem, and whatever the poem is about, through a “self” that is itself shaped by the poet’s place in history and culture. Conceptual writing, on the other hand, decentres the author and authorship: poems are created through a deliberately “selfless” concept or premise; text is generated by that premise, not “written” in the traditional or lyric senses of the term: Kenneth Goldsmith, one of the leading practitioners of this sort of artistic creation underscores the break with the past by calling its results “uncreative writing.” Writers who produce conceptual texts vary greatly in their methods and ideologies.
In my research with Christian Bök, I argue that there exist four limit-cases for conceptual writing: the aleatoric text (a text without a human author), the illegible text (unreadable in any conventional sense of the term), the mannerist text (one based on the exaggeration of some literary device or rule), and the readymade text (intended for some purpose other than poetry but turned into a poetic performance). Writers develop techniques for producing texts within these constraints, such as programming algorithms to generate aleatoric poems from recursive grammars, or writing an entire mannerist book using only one vowel per section. An illegible text can be created by treating a page of prose as a connect-the-dots game, with only the lines joining all the “a”s, “b”s and so on, and a version of the “readymade” text poem can be created by erasing letters and words from existing texts to plunder new words and meanings from them.
Writers who use techniques like these end up producing works like Re-Writing Freud by Simon and Christine Morris (a authorless book created by flinging all 223,704 words of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams at 90 miles per hour from the back of a car, then photographing the word patterns that fall to the road, or in the foliage beside it). Or Math Minus Math by Rosaire Appel: an example of concrete poetry in which shapes on the page appear to be conventional mathematical symbols but are not, yet the overall shape of the text on the page feels meaningful nonetheless. Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullen creates poems through arbitrary cross-references between the American Heritage Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. And Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel erases words in the writings of Marius Barbeau who himself erased indigenous icons such as totem poles from their own original cultural habitat in order to save what could be saved, he thought, from a vanishing culture, of which Abel himself is a part. You can read further (and in Morris’s case watch the video) at the websites listed at the end of this work. I should note that not all of these people consider themselves conceptual artists, but the texts that they’ve generated fit, in some way, into the broad limit-cases of conceptual writing. This is an important point: not every writer that works with conceptual techniques or generates conceptual texts adheres to the ideologies of Conceptualism-with-a-capital-C.
Yet Conceptualism (again, capital C) has influenced a lot of writers outside of its own self-identified community. With the freedom from the self that Conceptualism offered, it has become a force. However, while Conceptualism dreamed of burying the writer, it has itself run into a crisis at the moment in which the writer embedded in (and thus not immune to) the cultural and historical forces of his or her time has become the focus.
In March 2015, Kenneth Goldsmith read Michael Brown’s autopsy report at Brown University’s Interrupt 3 conference as a work of uncreative art in the “readymade” sense described above. In “The Body Of Michael Brown,” Goldsmith read the report word for word, restructuring it to end with the coroner’s description of Brown’s genitalia. Above Goldsmith’s head there was a massive projection of Brown’s graduation photo. The work has raised the objection that Goldsmith, who is white, claimed the materials as his work of art and in turn, appropriated the corpse of a young black man whose white killer, a police officer, was not indicted and still roams free. In choosing Michael Brown’s autopsy, Goldsmith is choosing to draw attention to race and its injustices: Brown was a victim whose community still protests in the streets, at the risk of their lives and livelihoods, for their safety from police violence. Goldsmith is none of these, but is using the very divide he sits on the privileged side of without acknowledging his own placement in the cultural equation. In this argument, then, the apparent “selflessness” of Conceptualism is challenged as an attempt to hide the political reality of the artist’s existence.
In a possibly connected instance of a similarly disturbing kind, Vanessa Place has been transcribing Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind on Twitter. Her avatar photo for this project is an appropriated image of the novel’s character Mammy, the main character’s black nanny/servant. Mammy, then embodies an archetype with a history deeply rooted in slavery. Place’s performance has resulted in her dismissal from The Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ (AWP’s) conference committee (albeit for, perhaps, the wrong reasons), which has led to a small but vocal rhetorical movement called “Je suis Vanessa,” like Charlie Hebdo’s “Je suis Charlie.” Many have positioned Vanessa Place as someone who has stared down the barrel of a gun in defense of the freedom of speech. Others have posited Place as simply flipping an opportunist middle finger to people of colour hurt by Kenneth Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown,” calling her Gone with the Wind project “literary blackface.” It is as if she says that their pain matters not. That their deaths are her gain and she is free to use them for her artistic fodder.
The issue is not the right to use the suffering of others in one’s own art. Re-performing pain has its place. In art, pain can be contained. Painters can render their canvasses, expressing themselves through the therapeutic tool of the paintbrush. Inscribing pain can be cathartic for survivors and lead to breakthroughs and a repurposing of a trauma’s effects. Conceptual writing offers an avenue for the expunction of pain and the reclamation of agency. But the story and body of Michael Brown and the narratives and traumas of slaves in literature contain cultural complexities and are thus inherently problematic. Some would argue that there are pains that belong solely to the afflicted by their nature and their origin, and regardless of where one stands on that point, to use such pains without recognition of their role in the identities of others, specifically identities of race, risks falling into the camp of those who cause them, which means there are many who say that such use does.
Can an entire artistic aesthetic be an institution of white supremacy? This is a question that haunts the poetic world at the moment. The white practitioners of these aesthetics benefit from white privilege, and the output of its most influential members can cause pain (beyond the pain originally dealt by their sources), no matter how theoretically sound their artists’ statements may seem. Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place favour unoriginality and produce readymade texts. To what degree does the appropriative nature of the readymade make it inherently problematic, or outright racist? What power relations underwrite the unoriginal text, and is it possible to write out such texts in a new setting without reproducing them? These are questions to which I don’t know the answers, because they are complex questions that must consider large volumes of disparate work by multitudinous authors. But they are questions worth asking, not just of writers that produce unoriginal texts, but of those who produce unauthored, unreadable, and uninspired ones as well.
But rather than interrogating their own whiteness in what Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza identified as a kyriarchy: a social system in which any individual at any given time can be oppressor or oppressed, but in which, overall, one class of person is politically dominant—that is, our current system—Goldsmith and Place re-perform white violence, and in the process have recolonized the bodies of people of colour, as “texts” ripe for reaping. The argument—call it Conceptualism's faith—that texts can be universal (and therefore outside of any individual culture and its politics) while the experiences those texts refer to can be left behind—this argument is flawed: the texts only have the effect they do in conceptualist performance because of their intimate, I'd dare say unbreakable, connection to experiences within the specific culture itself. Conceptualism wants it both ways: texts that are something because of their link to both individual and cultural experiences, but that are nothing because they are not in themselves those experiences. But these experiences are not universal, nor are they in these cases a means of dealing with white guilt when the whiteness of their authors is left silent. No matter how well-intentioned their drive, Goldsmith will never know what it is to feel afraid of every police officer he sees, and Place will never know the trauma of the language she tries to reclaim from Gone with the Wind. Therein might lie the limit of art anyone can practice without acknowledgement of their own complicity in creating the world where the suffering of others is the grist for the mill: not whether an artist does or does not know the pain they are writing about, but whether it is possible that they could.
As I see it, the crisis is not a crisis of free speech. Goldsmith and Place have every right to make the art they wish to make. The crossroads have been arrived at because art lives and breathes beyond its creation in the discourse that stems from it. Intellectualism on its own is not an effective shield from criticism and it can be a weapon used to silence critics. Having, as in this case, a highly productive and in many ways liberating premise on which to make art, does not, as I once thought, disconnect the artist from the political and social conditions of their work or their own being. Should art always be safe? Absolutely not. As white conceptual writers, Goldsmith and Place have the opportunity to target the kyriarchy in an attempt to undermine its structures. But in being silent where I think their art demands speech, instead they have chosen to punch down at those who suffer from systemic oppression. Have they aimed these punches? I suspect not. Racism does not require intention, but unintentional racism still requires critique.
Conceptual writers may dream of an aesthetic that allows them to speak as—and for—whomever they like: or no one at all, or everyone at once. Some might envision a world divested of both privilege and prejudice, where all of human experience is universal and shared. It all sounds very good on paper, but we do not live in this world. It is at this point that the dream of conceptual writing breaks. It breaks because it is racist to usurp narratives of black enslavement and slaughter to perform them without acknowledgement, through a white body. It breaks because even in a world where poetry might be composed solely by computers, there will always be a self invoked in poetic work. This is not a post-racial world. Those who behave as if they live in one—while we don’t—wilfully ignore their own privilege, and the influence of systemic racism.
What I think this means is that the ideals of conceptualism, like any ideals, drift out of reach. Practitioners of conceptualism must understand that their devotion to their aesthetic does not exempt them from responsibility for the texts they release. If they chose to present problematic works into the world, they must invest in the inherent problems their works create. Whether the solution is to create further work or individual analysis of their art is to be seen, but works being called out are works that requires not just analysis by the public, but by the artists themselves. As it stands, Kenneth Goldsmith has kept silent about his Interrupt 3 performance, and Vanessa Place continues her Gone With The Wind tweets despite public outcries for her to terminate the project.
In Notes on Conceptualisms Vanessa Place asks, “[To] what degree has art removed aesthetics from ethical consideration?” (29). Art itself hasn’t removed anything from anywhere. It is artists who choose to act according to ethical considerations, or not, no matter where they fall on the poetic axis for intentionality, who either successfully answer the ethical considerations raised regarding their art—or fail to do so. Conceptual techniques can help writers generate wonderful, unique, and insightful works of art. But those works don’t exist in a vacuum. No works do.
Abel, Jordan. The Place of Scraps. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2013. Print.
Appel, Rosaire. Math Minus Math. Press Rappel, 2009. Print.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. “The Body of Michael Brown.” Interrupt 3. Brown University. Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Providence, RI. 13 Mar. 2015. Reading.
Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. New York: Macmillan, 1936. Print.
Morris, Simon, et al. Re-writing Freud. York, England: Information as Material, 2005. Print.
________ .“Simon Morris presents ‘Rewriting Freud’ at Kelly Writers House, February 4, 2013.” YouTube. Web. 1 June. 2015.
Mullen, Harryette. Sleeping with the Dictionary. Berkeley: U of California, 2002. Print.
Place, Vanessa, and Robert Fitterman. Notes on Conceptualisms. Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013. Print.
Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. “Introduction: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Gender, Status and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies.” Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies. Ed. Laura Nasrallah, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009. Print.
© 2015 Braydon Beaulieu