“What was great about the fifties is that for one brief moment—maybe, say, six weeks—nobody understood art. That’s why it all happened.”
Composer Morton Feldman’s description of the mid-century art scene refers to the explosion of forms, means, and materials that emerged from studios in the wake of Duchamp’s "fountain": a urinal placed in a gallery, whose symmetry, craftsmanship, and beauty asked, ‘Why am I not also art?’ The answer we’ve embraced since then is that Duchamp’s Fountain is art, of course, but for reasons that have far less to do with its craftsmanship or beauty than the questions it raised or the concept upon which Duchamp based his work. Enter most art galleries today, and the view of contemporary society you’ll find is less likely to be expressed by a realistic painting of a Parisian cafe than a work like “Alba,” the rabbit that artist Eduardo Kac genetically engineered to glow green. Instead of casting history as a bronze general on a horse, it’s more likely to take the form of Tom Friedman’s “1,000 Hours of Staring,” a blank piece of paper that the artist stared at for a thousand hours to imbue it with a history, the way a cheap, ordinary pen becomes museum worthy because of the history attached to it, say, by having been carried by an astronaut to the moon. That is, today, mainstream visual art is conceptual art: art where the concepts or ideas informing it are at least as important as the art object itself, and whose form calls attention to these ideas. Yet even the brief list of the two examples above illustrates how the term “conceptual art” is a misnomer when used in the singular, for it masks how varied, how multiple these concepts, and so these art works, can be: each a proposition for how to make and think about art, each an articulation of its own particular concepts, or engagement with the world outside of art—that is, its own particular time, its own particular place. This anthology, then, is an argument to think through contemporary writing that engages its issues by foregrounding its forms, materials, and ideas. It is an anthology of works more motivated by concepts than conventions; works that are aware of themselves as art made of words and engage with language as a medium as well as a means to an end. Given that literature itself has never had an easy or stable definition, conceptual writing, like conceptual visual art, cannot be one thing but an irreducible multiplicity. Having no clear boundaries, conceptual writing is less able to answer questions that beg binary answers, such as ‘Is this art?’ than it is to ask, ‘Why not?’ ‘Why does the novel have to be one thing?’ ‘How many ways can a poem be?’
Conceptual Writing / Writing as Contemporary Art
Anyone who steps away from the bestseller lists can see that the literary landscape beyond its commercial walls is just as wild as that of visual art, just as varied, just as conceptual: novels in the form of a diorama; narratives told as a series of Facebook pages, tweets, or crowdsourced across multiple social-media platforms; stories told as recipes, poems in skywriting or genetic code, pixels, skin — as well as print and sound — carriers of language with the strangeness authors have always given ordinary speech in order to transform it into art. In fact, this strangeness, or unfamiliarity, may be the very core of what makes writing literature; and pushed to its boundaries, what makes literature conceptual. As Gerald Bruns puts it, conceptual writing is “made of language but not of what we use language to produce: meanings, concepts, propositions, descriptions, narratives, expressions of feeling, and so on. It’s not that conceptual writing excludes these things; it’s that the writings we call conceptual are no longer in their service.” In this way, authors can be like painters once photography freed them from their service to document, to depict historical events, to create lifelike portraits. The clowns of both Shakespeare and Beckett understand this, undermining the pragmatic literalness of utilitarian speech, as do authors of fictional guidebooks such as Michael Martone’s The Blue Guide to Indiana with its description of the trans-Indiana mayonnaise pipeline; as Steve McCaffery’s exhaustive, performative reading of headings in the Toronto phone book suggests, it’s hard for a functional street map, directory, or urinal to be read as art. It is only by disconnecting the pipes of these “texts” that they can become symbolic. It is only by making them useless that they can, paradoxically, become useful — useful in a different sense — not as urinal, map, or phone directory, but as rhetoric. As art.
Novels and poems are, of course, put to many uses (as therapy, commercial product, greeting cards, entertainment, docu-drama … ). And conceptual literature can also have utility, especially that which blurs the line between art and life. “If someone walks up to you and starts talking,” David Antin says at the start of one of his talk poems, “how do you know if it’s a poem?” Even Antin’s talk poems — long impromptu monologues — even the most conceptual of writing — the sound poem of non-rhymes for no reason — has to be entertaining, that is, has to serve. Conversely, even the most non-conceptual work, the work deep in the service of some pragmatic function, is written according to some theory, even if it’s only a concept as to how many syllables are in a sonnet, or whether the protagonist can see through walls or must obey the laws of Newtonian physics. As far back as the Greeks, readers have noted the multivalenced nature of writing, or as Aristotle put it, every work has a philosophical component (content), a form (aesthetics), and a rhetorical function (political).
It is impossible to speak, write, or make any art without a conceptual basis, for theories of how the world is arranged and can be represented are embedded in our very grammar (even our very cognitive makeup). All writing is already conceptual. In this sense, even the most traditional novel can be conceptual: a story for Henry James is never just what happened. It is also what someone thought happened. And this is a theory of composition, a conception. So what do we mean when we talk about “conceptual writing”? Partly, we mean writing that calls attention to this fact: writing in which form both conveys meaning and is the object of meaning. It could be said, for example, that the most traditional, formal aspect of a portrait bust is marble. But it’s easy to see the relation of form to meaning in art when Marc Quinn creates a classical bust of his own head, but instead of using a traditional material like marble, uses his own blood, drained out of his body and frozen to form a block of ice that could be shaped, thereby suggesting that the identity of a person lies less in the appearance of their surface features than their inner (and ephemeral) biology. Alain Robbe-Grillet makes the same point thus: if the style of Camus’ The Stranger was changed, its flattened effect would be lost and the philosophy of this existential novel diluted. Here, form, rhetoric, is conceived as worldview, not simply technique, or style. Similar analogies between form, concept, and meaning could be made in any medium: architecture, music …
Thus it is no accident that the epic poem arises in one era and the poem written by a computer in another; or the poem written in genetic code. It’s no accident that a conception of literature as a product of unique, individual genius arises in one century, while in another it takes the form of a database film, that is, a narrative film such as Toxi•City by Roderick Coover, Scott Rettberg, and numerous others who contributed to the software and imagery of a film that is different every time it is viewed. Or writing conceived as architecture, or that foregrounds the body of the text, its materials and visual nature; or a rip-paste-burn aesthetic — call it collage — and its democracy of sampled quotation, recycling, appropriation, recirculation — so much so, in fact,
that collage of reworked materials has been the dominant
organizing principle of the (post)modernist period. This
includes the plethora of authors reworking history or
appropriating pop or earlier forms, as Patrik Ourednik does
in Europeana, casting this novel in the form of a history
textbook; or repurposing materials as Vanessa Place does,
creating narratives by repurposing court documents as poetry,
making them speak a different truth in the manner of visual works like “Gloria” by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, which repurposes a 52-ton army tank as art.
Indeed, recasting language (its materials, its history) in ways that require readers to reassess their own assumptions can be seen as a marker of contemporary, conceptual writing. But why? What is it about our moment that makes us feel, again (like Gertrude Stein?), the need to reclaim a language? “Faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists,” the “uncreative” poet Kenneth Goldsmith has written (uncreatively rewriting filmmaker Harun Farocki’s words: “Because so many images already exist, I am discouraged to make new ones”). Conversely, Johanna Drucker writes that the only way we can reclaim our language, make it our own, is to keep writing. Reclaim from what? Author Raymond Federman once answered with another question: “Is it possible for literature to survive the kind of reduction, the kind of banalization that mass media imposes on contemporary culture?” he asked, referring to the overwhelming power of entertainment corporations, Hollywood and television producers, and political machinery to define literature, and indeed all writing, in terms that serve their interests. Federman’s list seems equally valid today, if augmented by a variety of software developers, social media conglomerates, and other entities jockeying to monopolize “the way we speak.”
“Indeed, if there is a future in fiction,” Brian Evenson has written, “I think it lies in the active dialogue that can occur between fiction and philosophy/theory, a dialogue in which each prods the other toward new possibilities, where each proposes questions that the other is compelled to answer.” In sum, those who value purity of genre will not find it in conceptual writing: the questions that motivate conceptual writing are as varied as the answers given by the work, but much of what goes by conceptual writing today seems to be writing with or against the machine: our bureaucracies, the habits of mind, and other systems that colonize the ways we speak, and so the ways we think. A number of authors write to foreground the arbitrariness of convention: to draw attention to what an accident of history usage can be, as well as the power relations that flow from it (think here of the “Whites Only” restroom signs, and how they were once considered “normal,” the “way we write,” in apartheid South Africa or the Southern United States). Rather than mirroring the land — as in Stendhal’s conception of the novel as a “mirror traveling down the road of life” — conceptual writing often strives to reveal strata that give the surface its shape; it exposes linguistic fossils — the commonsense or mythical view — such as our persistence in saying “the sun rises” though we know full well that it is the earth that moves. When Ron Silliman creates a language of non sequiturs, invented vocabulary, fractures, and enjambments — when he and other poets frustrate expectations or pull a linguistic rabbit out of a grammatical hat — they foreground how easily we sleepwalk the ruts of everyday speech, and so thought. Or the joy there is in appreciating language as language. It’s not that contemporary, conceptual authors have a unified agenda or aesthetic: uncreative writing, the reworking of fairy tales, texts of erasure, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, and code poetry, to use some of the labels given to the kinds of writing that are on display in the following pages. Rather, these are but a few of the many approaches taken by authors whose work can be seen as conceptual. Nor do they make language new in order to make it new, per se. The works gathered here do not mine those tired and false dichotomies often associated with new writing, the difference between High and low, for example (or other mis-characterizations of last century’s avant-garde agenda), or thought and emotion, or even the conventional-conceptual divide. Instead, much conceptual writing reveals anew how habits of speech mirror habits of thought embedded in official or dominant culture: they rework states of common sense, myth, commerce, or nature and reconfigure it as historical, unmask it as a point of view, a system of power relationships. They rework language for many of the reasons that writers have always had.
A Long, Parallel History…
In this sense, conceptual writing has a tradition that extends back through
the postage-stamp parodies, fake newspapers, and other publishing
experiments of FLUXUS; back through Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein,
Gertrude Stein’s repetitions; back through the visuals of Tristram Shandy
at the inception of the novel, or even the layout Renaissance poets gave verses so that they could be read in multiple directions; back through the icons embedded in medieval illuminated manuscripts to visually link one passage to another; up from the muse of the first poet who made ordinary speech strange; and out from the invention of writing itself.
Yet even if we were to tweet Don Quixote word for word, Borges might have written, it would be different in time, and therefore different in meaning. Thus, web authors using hyperlinks that echo the medieval scribe’s use of visual icons, the metafiction novel that incorporates the same frame-within-frame structure that Scheherazade employed to save her life, the authors in this anthology who, like Renaissance troubadours, juggle verses, or incorporate the white space of their page as Stéphane Mallarmé did in “A Throw of the Dice,” or otherwise draw on the early avant-garde, are different: a contemporary extension of one of two literary traditions that are easier to discern when placed side by side. Even the briefest of sketches illustrates how literature has always consisted of two parallel practices: writing as a transparent window on the world and writing that calls attention to the window itself, including the grid of its panes. In one, writes poet Charles Bernstein, “reality / fantasy / experience is presented to us through writing. // In the other, the writing itself is seen as an instance of reality / fantasy / experience / event.”
In prose, for example, there is the realist mainstream, often exemplified by the novel as a daydream that readers can get lost in; in this virtual reality, page layout, fonts, language — anything that would shake a reader from this dream — are left invisible by an adherence to normalcy, familiarity, convention. Just as a traditional landscape painting can be a window on the world, these texts serve as the windows Henry James imagined in the house of fiction, or Stendhal’s mirror with its emphasis on authenticity, craft, transparency of language, sentiment, and the text as trompe l’oeil. On the other hand there is a kind of literature that is equally interested in exploring the possibilities of form, the limits of language; a type of literature suggested by Sterne’s Tristram Shandy
that emphasizes text as a medium, the material nature of language; a
literature that articulates an assumption that literary form, like form in
music or visual art, emerges from and so reflects its historical moment,
and implies that the conventional forms of the past are no more appropriate
as contemporary expression than the minuet. Compare, for example,
Shakespeare’s break with the conventions of his day known as the unities
(a play should have one main action, which happens in one place, during
the space of a day or less), or his invention of the soliloquy: a moment in
the play where the action stops so that the actor can deliver a personal
essay, another literary invention that emerges along with the humanist
individual whose personal thoughts were not only worthy of writing but worthy of reading (in contrast to, for example, the eternal truths of stylized, and anonymously authored mystery plays). It was the literary equivalent of the shift from the stylized depictions of men and women in medieval art to the individual features that Renaissance painters gave to their characters, à la Michelangelo. It was, in short, an experiment by an author in search of a form that would speak to his contemporaries.
Experimental, conceptual, avant-garde, hybrid, surfiction, fusion, radical,
slipstream, avant-pop, postmodern, self-conscious, innovative, alternative,
anti- or new literature … A variety of names have been proposed to
describe the conceptual writing that has emerged across the years ever
since Shakespeare broke with the unities, and previous anthologies have
gathered works under these names (indeed readers will recognize some
of the authors included here from these earlier formulations). As in
Shakespeare’s case, experiments by authors often became conventions themselves or were subsumed by the culture at large. Avant-pop (see After Yesterday’s Crash: The Avant-Pop Anthology), that impetus to channel the Andy Warholesque focus on celebrity, advertising, and pop culture into forms and agendas more closely identified with the avant-garde, loses its power to be noticed, let alone shock, in a world that includes the globalization of McDonald's, an elevation of celebrities to the status once held by public intellectuals, pop touchstones as cultural lingua franca, and literary study itself skewers toward cultural studies. Similarly, we might ask, what happens to Electronic Literature (See Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary) once all writing is “electronic”? No term for this variety of writing can be all encompassing; most will be associated with the period in which they emerged (Postmodern American Fiction) though there is a family resemblance in that conceptual writing can be thought of as a literature whose aesthetic often shares an ethos with contemporary thought; a literature that takes its own medium as part of its subject matter, or works against the assumptions of the (current) status quo, especially literature that conceives of its audience in mass demographic or commercial terms. In this regard, it has affinities with visual, conceptual art such as Francis Alÿs’s “Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing,” a performance in which the artist pushes a melting block of ice around Mexico City until there is nothing left. The concept motivates the work, rather than the work illustrating a concept, or resulting in a product that can be sold. And in so doing, it opens up a variety of slippages, chance encounters, disjunctions, and surprises. The concept generates the work in the way that the constraints of an OuLiPo author generates the game, e.g., the decision by Georges Perec to write a novel without ever using the letter ‘e’ is the action that generates the novel itself (translated as A Void) just as the rules of a sport make possible the game, or the decisions by other authors generate one kind of literary work and not another: works that employ talking animals, linguistic games, puzzles, parodies, historical or ontological disjunctions, discursive juxtapositions, appropriations, collage techniques, and other rhetorical and stylistic strategies and constraints, even those of realism.
That is, inherent in this type of literature is a belief that aesthetic choices are conscious and political, not natural. That conventional form, as well as unconventional form, carries a viewpoint, an attitude through language and to language and to the world. It believes that literary form embodies epistemological, or ontological positions, or otherwise articulates convictions about how the world works, including the literary world. By its very nature, then, though the “normal” use of language is calcified by everyday usage; though the cultural formations that “the way we speak” bring into existence (best-seller lists, mainstream publishers, course syllabi, Hollywoodization) tend to limit the definition of what counts as a novel or poem, this is a type of literature that tends to keep these definitions unresolved. Or at least fun and unexpected. In contrast to the easy consumability of genre fiction, or the familiar sentiment of greeting-card verse, this is a kind of literature that asks us to look again, to consider what else the text might be doing if our first reaction, our reaction premised on past ways of reading, doesn’t seem to fit the conventions we’ve been taught (indoctrinated) to read by, and we find ourselves in the position of the first viewers of Henry VI who thought the play absurd because they were asked to believe the single space before them was by turns a street, a bedchamber, and the coast of Kent. Or viewers who still come upon a cubist painting for the first time and exclaim — “People don’t look like that!”
As Joe Amato writes, “Because it’s aesthetic, it’s momentary./ Because it’s momentary, we’re confused.”
…up to Today
It’s not hard to imagine our gentle reader coming upon Scott Helmes's "Non-Additive Postulations," with its fusion of natural and mathematical languages, and exclaiming, “That isn’t a poem!” It’s not difficult to imagine a similar reaction to Lucy Corin’s plotless “Some Machines” or Alan Bigelow’s “Silence,” a story inspired by John Cage’s 4’33”, and which appears on screen as mostly black space. Original readers often had a visceral reaction to what came to be called Language Writing, or writing that is about, whatever else it may also be about, writing: fictions like Brian Evenson’s “House Rules” or prose poems like Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. Indeed these aren’t stories if a story must have conventional story tropes, psychologically rounded characters, cinematic description. Ditto for Shelley Jackson’s “Skin,” a story that is being published, one word at a time, as tattoos on the 2,000 volunteers who serve as Jackson’s pages. But it’s also easy to imagine our gentle reader leaving these works with the reaction many of Picasso’s first viewers must have had, willing to have a second and third look, remaining open to the possibilities of another way of seeing, and willing to consider the individual work on its own terms: a reaction art critic Dave Hickey summarizes as “Huh? Wow!"
The art that most interests Hickey, and many readers of conceptual literature, is art that doesn’t just go about business as usual; art that, like Helmes's poem, might be confusing when first encountered, but once the reader sees how the equations direct reading, how the square root of love and its other math-English fusions fail, for all their mathematical precision (let alone the slackness of English), to get at the cause of a failed relationship, or has to abandon linear cause and effect for clouds of association, and how these nebulous associations may come as close to saying something about the human condition as we can hope for — “Wow!” Nor is it hard to imagine this reaction to “House Rules” once the reader sees it as a dialog between fiction and philosophy. The same is true for Jackson’s “Skin,” once we consider this story, a story we will never actually get to read, is a contemporary articulation of the wall-less labyrinths Borges imagined to such effect and what its existence has to say about our bodies, our narratives, the conception of the author, and what it means to publish …. Publish means, after all, to ‘make public.'
That is, if the 19th-century novel is the literary equivalent of a painting of a clipper ship on the high seas, works like Eduardo Kac’s “Biopoetry” or George Quasha’s “Poetry Is” or Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper can be thought of as the literary equivalent of contemporary conceptual art. A different emphasis. A different orientation: one that privileges the conceptual in literature instead of the mimetic.
Thus, while one author might write a mainstream, traditional novel with characters saying feminist things (“I am woman, hear me roar”) and doing feminist things (running for president), another might explore the way language and the pressures of plot itself may help bring into existence a gender-based hierarchy. Or explore through language an ontological shift embedded in our communication, as Kass Fleisher does in “The Speed of Zoom” whose txt-spk form asks what it means for women and men to have an online relationship when body text stands as a surrogate for human bodies, and all speech is mediated by the medium, and edited for effect. And by so doing, perhaps creates a penetrating representation of unspoken laws, social formations, relationships between men and women. As well as the Eternal Human Heart. For the Human Heart, like the perpetual calendar, is eternal. As such, the conceptual works in this anthology do not imply a break with the aesthetics and humanist concerns of traditional literature. Rather, they are extensions of them.
As John Barth famously wrote, ours is a period where postmodern, modern, and premodern literary works are being written simultaneously. As time passes, this observation increasingly seems to be an understatement: on my bookshelf, there are texts that are thousands of years old, as well as those written during the French Revolution, and in the year I was born. And this year. They are all part of the always-ever-present that is today, and all of them contain examples of what would have been “experimental” in their day (e.g., Dante's neologistic phrasing, the hybrid writing of Zora Neal Hurston or Kathy Acker's appropriations); all of them continue to influence whatever is written today, and will live on in whatever literature will become, be it the writing by bots descended from Nick Montfort’s code poetry, or the DNA replication imagined by Christian Bök. If conceptual writing from the last century was driven by experimentation in form, and postmodern writing was a dialogue between authors like Barth and theorists and philosophers of language, the generation writing today seems to have absorbed this history: authors like Deb Olin Unferth or Salvador Plascencia do not so much engage the theoretical debates of the past but have absorbed their fallout over story form, originality, authorship, and the other hot buttons of an earlier generation the way an earlier generation of writers might have absorbed assumptions about the unconscious without ever having read Freud, or the way female pilots flying combat missions for the military today embody assumptions about the role of women without having read Hélène Cixous.
Just as visual artists have brought into being a plethora of models for art-making, so some writers continue to find their materials — language as well as its embodiment in fonts, layout, or sound — endlessly surprising. Raised to an exponent by the variety of objects readers have discovered that can be read as text, and the ever-changing historic and cultural contexts in which we read and write, the tradition of conceptual writing seems less like a movement (the avant-garde), or period (postmodernism), than an open-ended activity.
How could it be otherwise? Unlike those unknown Egyptians, chiseling their poems to the Ram God in stone, unlike members of Fluxus, creating text collages with scissors and paste, readers and writers today swim in a much more fluid stream of reading and writing technologies. As N. Katherine Hayles notes, every work of literature published today is digital, if its writing, layout, printing, and distribution is taken into account. Just as earlier technologies such as the telephone and the telegraph disembodied voice and thereby made speech different for James Joyce than what it had been for Homer, so reading and writing cannot help but become something different to us as our lang absorbs a vocab of emoticons, txt-spk, on cl phones, and old words (photography, gay, cloning) accrue new associations, while others go as extinct as ‘thou’.
Consider the 1.3 million poems Philip M. Parker has written, using software that employs an algorithm based on graph theory and a metric for linguistic differences across word strings in other poems. Consider the poetry of Nick Thurston, which he composes by hiring crowdsourced, subminimum wage employees to do the actual writing. Consider “Monument to Indian Native First Nations American Tenacity in the Stacked Face of Continual Misrepresentation,” by Davis Schneiderman and Tom Denlinger, with its appropriation and remix of competing viewpoints, styles, and representations — from congressional reports on Indian affairs to whooping Native Americans in pre-PC beer commercials — its juxtapositions of voices, bending of genres, erasures, and boundary transgressions. If the aesthetics of these three works speak to contemporary readers it’s because they echo contemporary culture in general: a culture and an aesthetic made possible by putting into the hands of readers and writers communication technologies and attitudes of a sophistication we’ve never seen before: tools that allow anyone to monitor the behavior of others, mix tracks, incorporate old TV commercials, VR objects and blogs — the whole theater of cultural memory — data mine each other’s living for patterns; work, or play with people all over the globe, just to mention a few examples. But more importantly, these works speak relevance, i.e., are born of a contemporary mindset that thinks it’s natural to draw on a global history of words, sounds, and images at our fingertips today; to make visible the previously invisible or marginalized; to restate that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, even if the beholder is an algorithm; to regard all culture as contingent and rearrange-able; to tell its story, in other words, in a way that is as natural for us as Medievals thought it natural to seek out a Christian explanation for the order of the planets, or as Modernists would have thought it natural to articulate a Freudian unconscious. And in so doing, say something we can relate to today.
Contemporary, conceptual writing, then, arises from more than the timeliness of its themes, is about more than the proliferation of authoring tools, writing surfaces, and the evolution of language. Rather, conceptual writing is as often as not an exploration of how these elements come together to help make the present “present,” and in so doing, are themselves born: a cultural node in which lots of authors, working for lots of independent reasons, and with lots of different tools and goals, together constitute the emergence of a body of writing with family resemblances. That continues to morph—often faster than the culture at large—and so continually requires of the reader a willingness to relearn things they thought they already knew, especially how to read. It puts high demands on the reader as co-author, even if the fourth wall can be the most opaque of all.
As is true for any new art, as was true of earlier literary experiments such as Virginia Woolf’s fragmented narratives or Walt Whitman’s free verse, only time will teach us how to read many of the works in this anthology. As well as how they will always stay beyond reading. The failure of language to express the inexpressible is one of the enduring themes of literature, and this is especially true of conceptual literature. What can be said is that any definition will be out of date as soon as it is written. Any attempt to narrow conceptual writing to a particular form or idea is doomed by the very limits required by definition. For even as you read this introduction, someone somewhere is inventing a new form in the hopes of cracking open something meaningful about life as it is lived at the moment of its writing. Imagination Dead Imagine +1.
"I have nothing to say and I am saying it, and that is poetry"
Three thousand years ago, in the Temple of Esna, an Egyptian scribe composed a humn to the omnipresence of Khnum the Ram God by making it entirely out of transformations of a single hieroglyphic sign: the symbol for the ram.