2| The Double Helix of Contemporary Writing and

Contemporary Thought


Conceptual writing is often identified as creative writing that engages ideas and perspectives from other fields, especially linguistic theory and philosophy. From Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “93. One person might say ‘A proposition is the most ordinary thing in the world’ and another: ‘A proposition— that’s something very queer!’” It’s often easy to see an author struggling with similar philosophical conundrums. In Jay Cantor’s Krazy Kat, cartoon characters debate Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art.” In these and numerous other examples that could be drawn from across the history of literature, conceptual authors and theoretical thinkers are as often in communion— the existentialism of Nietzsche and Camus— as they are at odds, posing questions that are difficult for the other to answer.


As Percival Everett demonstrates here in his “Confluence,” conceptual writing often brings to theory questions or elaborations that are difficult to articulate in the essay of the philosopher. Rather than debate philosophy, some works might trigger an emotional response or otherwise stand as an instance of philosophy. See Robert Coover’s story “The Babysitter” for its Baudrillard-like, if ironic, “ecstasy of communication.” Parody and irony are in the conceptual author’s tool bag, not the particle physicist’s. Even more so, conceptual authors have shown a remarkable disregard for the borders of genre that most theorists either can’t or won’t transgress in their own practice.


Indeed, the intersection of theory and literature today is partially marked by the broad number of theoretical issues engaged within an equally broad array of disciplines: the language theorists (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, et al) often associated with conceptual novelists and poets (R.M. Berry, David Markson, Bob Perelman, et al). But conceptual writing also intersects with a wide array of thinking in the social sciences (Debra Di Blasi), physics, biology, and other hard sciences (Thomas Pynchon, Eduardo Kac), cognitive science, mathematics and information sciences (Harry Mathews and OuLiPo), and historiography (Robert Coover, Patrik Ourednik, Susan Howe).


More revealing of today’s intersection of theory and literary practice are the attitudes, ideas, and positions expressed by the works themselves. Just as the intersection of authors and theorists in a modernist world helped generate Modernism— Virginia Woolf and Picasso with their affinities to the multiple perspectives suggested by Einstein’s theory of relativity— the multiplicity of affinities between authors and a multiplicity of concepts today both reflect and contribute to a world that Woolf and Picasso would find increasingly difficult to recognize: using crowdsourcing to translate Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick into Japanese emoticons. The novel’s famous opening line, “Call me Ishmael,” appears in this translation as:          .                     This and all the other 10,000 sentences of the novel were translated by 3 different Turks at the rate of $0.05 per line; these 3 translations were then voted on by other Turks (at the rate of $0.02 per vote) and the translations that received the most votes were included in the book. More than 800 “authors” spent approximately 3,795,980 seconds “writing” this book (whose publication was made possible by a crowdfunding Kickstarter campaign). While the influence of psychology on an earlier generation might be seen in literary form such as Faulkner’s dense and punctuationless stream of consciousness, the insights of contemporary cognitive science make Freud, and stream of consciousness, begin to seem more in tune with an earlier time than ours. When researchers were able to shut off the genetic switch to aging in roundworms, allowing these worms to live the equivalent of 900 human years, human minds drift, naturally, to their own mortality, our own switch. The stuff of philosophy. The stuff of conceptual writing and art. Changes in culture, such as the erosion of privacy, the rise of movements such as BLM or #MeToo, or new ways of communicating brought on by technical change, generate new perspectives onto the Eternal Human Heart that last century’s theory and literary form may have difficulty engaging with except as a rearguard action. A number of thinkers have thought profoundly about what it means to grow up, for example, under the surveillance-camera’s gaze, or in a world where genes from species as different as petunias and humans can be shuffled.

A number of authors, living in this new social reality, have taken up similar questions, and express themselves through their medium: e.g., works such as Shelley Jackson’s equation of body text and human bodies. The pointillist painter Georges Seurat drew his aesthetic from color theory and the mind’s ability to blend blue and yellow to make green; today, Lance Olson’s 10:01 draws on film theory to paint a portrait of America where memories of images blur with memories of experience— the “retail dramas” of Victoria’s Secret or The Rainforest Cafe, as Olsen puts it, or the shadow memory we share of jets hitting the World Trade Center. Instead of the autonomous protagonist of a 19th-century Bildungsroman, we have the nameless narrator of Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport gliding through seemingly endless associations between borderless things and people and her own dispersed identity. Instead of an ekphrastic poem from a time when people depended on words to imagine art they would never see, we have Douglas Kearney’s ekphrastic glossing of Beyoncé's and Kendrick Lamar's "Freedom" video. Collectively, these works remind us that we cannot choose to live in a world that has never heard of Derrida, feminism, data mining, Dolly the Sheep, the iPad, BLM, drones, or jihad any more than Virginia Wolf, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, or William Faulkner could write as though the force of theory was not shaping their world via Freud, Marx, Einstein, or Darwin.