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Global Conceptualisms
I am American.

Vanessa Place

Paris 6 juin 2012

I am American. Thus, it is my manifest destiny to arrive late on the scene and take credit for any subsequent victory. So given the opportunity to present a panel at this impressive and impressionable conference, and given my patriotic and personal tendencies, as well as the site-contingent fact of all our existences, that is to say the here and now, I chose to convene what I believe is the first international meeting of practitioners of conceptual writing. You will note that the participants in this round table—and I urge you to consult google for full biographies and links to further delights—represent a full array of practices and contexts, soon to be described. Practices as divergent as their geographies, contexts as disparate as all our told histories.

For my part, I would like to make two somewhat imperialist, somewhat internationalist, claims. First, that conceptualism is the first international (or trans-national, with the potential for internationalism) poetry movement as such. You should immediately object on behalf of concrete poetry, though that, I believe, is the only legitimate grounds for objection. However, my use of the phrase “as such” should prove my point, or at least improve my argument. “As such” as in the idioms “in itself” and “in that capacity” denotes that my claim that “conceptualism is the first international poetry movement” is inseparable from my claim that all poetry presently is is that which exists as poetry within the institution of poetry. All very much unlike concrete poetry, which asserted a set of working principles that then qualified it as poetry, including a prosody 1 and, most importantly, a valuation of language, reduced like a good sauce 2, that is to say, an active desire to preserve the semantic nature of poetry, even by way of its non-linguistic parts. Concrete poetry meant something. As such. Conceptualism, as I understand it, is meaningless, that is to say, its meaning is not predicated on the page. Form ≠ content / content ≠ form. Sense may stick to the stuff, but its tache is cant and its allegories arguably idiosyncratic. Meaning as essentially decorative and possibly pointless as a woman’s hat. Even when it tempts you otherwise, with lurid stories of crime or viable genetic material. For my own purposes, I define conceptual writing as work which does not contain the keys to its own kingdom, that is to say, work that is not self-reflexive. There is a dumb materiality to much conceptualism, an inertness that mirrors the inertness of poetry as such, poetry being, as you may have heard, still dead. Or, as my Danish friends would say, din mor3.

Second, that this literary movement is indicative, if not symptomatic, of our current conceptualist age. An age that contains no repetition, no différence, no simulacra but radical sameness, likeness of the sort Plato deemed dangerous and Aristotle found matter of course, if not fact. Recently I heard myself misquoted by a critic, who said that I said that conceptualism was like McDonald’s, everywhere all the same. What I had said was that we live in a conceptual age, an age of pure simultaneity, where there is only equipollence, only instantiation. And that conceptual poetry as such need not be translated because the text-objects are immaterial, though its poetics may be worthy of conversion. At least for purposes of discussion. But as so often happens, my misquote, that is to say, my mistake—for now it is mine, having been publically attributed to me—was moreover true. Happily, I am still right. For McDonald’s, as you know, tailors its menus to the local palette, offering McHuevo in Uruguay, Maharaja Mac in India, McShawarma in Israel, and McSpaghetti in the Philippines, while, of course, continuing to serve hamburger, fries, and Coca-Cola. Or something like hamburger, fries, and Coca-Cola. Too, the maxim of McDonalds—provide maximum calories for minimum nutrition—is the working principle for my own practice. And for poetry as such. In her 1969 survey of concretism, Mary Ellen Solt concluded: “We have been around the world with concrete poetry. And we still don’t know what it is….The day we know exactly what concrete poetry is will be the day we know exactly what poetry is.” Happily, we now know what poetry is. Nada por nada.

Still, it is not for nothing, or it is only for nothing, that you are here. And now what?

Craig Dworkin has explained that movements (like nation-states) are perhaps better defined by principles of exclusion rather than inclusion. That is to say, by poetry and/or conceptualism “as such,” I mean no such thing. Within my work, I range freely from the entirely found text, unchanged by me, simply stolen and set in a different context, such as my tweeting Gone With The Wind, to self-appropriations, in which I pick my own pocket, such as repurposing my legal briefs in Tragodia, to studied interventions, such as my replacing all references to women in iconic feminist texts in Boycott, to wholesale fabrications, such as my baroque and constrained Dies: A Sentence, to recombinatory post-conceptual sculptures, such as to be seen. Other practitioners in the United States also range like cats, from Kenneth Goldsmith’s procedural/documentary work to his media mediations, to Craig Dworkin’s spare grammar book to his elegant jeux des mots, to Robert Fitterman’s suburban sprawls, tightly wound, to Kim Rosenfield’s anti-socialized hermeneutic mashups, to what could be called second generation conceptualism, such as Trisha Low’s series of suicide notes or Steven Zultanski’s dick-lifts, evidencing the hyperbolic self, the me-me-me of a Narcissus without his Echo, to Divya Victor’s perversions of the enunciated Other, such as her Hello Kitty silhouettes inscribed with Reznikoff’s Holocaust. All of which, one could argue, engage in what I have called the discourse of the slave—in which the master discourse is simply repeated4. Castration by way of capitulation. For once we understand that the mirror is also the thing we make faces for, the question becomes for what?5 As compared, of course, to the question properly put to the lyric poet—what for? There is more, and now more to be revealed.

Again, I am American. La reine de rien. My country is violent. My work is violent. Violence, as you may know, solves nothing. Poetry solves nothing. I’ve got plenty of nothing. For it is not the job of poetry to solve the problems of the world, but to dumbly reflect them. In other words, whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must repeat. In still other words, ontology is for pussies. And finally, if this is not the first such movement, or the first such meeting, this in no way will stand in the path of history as it will be written. So you are here and now, and we thank you for this. Because nicht ist zu gut für Sie.



1. Perhaps best described as “verbivocalvisual” prosody, borrowing and expanding upon the Noigandres group’s use of Joyce’s term to describe the ideogrammatic features of concretism. Mary Ellen Solt. “A World Look at Concrete Poetry,” Mary Ellen Solt—Toward a Theory of Concrete Poetry, OEI Magazine 51 (2010): 205. In her essay, Solt argued concrete poetry as practiced by the Noigandres group “keeps the three essential elements of poetry: pattern, semantic serial structure, and the net of interacting linguistic relations.” Ibid. Other practitioners in other places thumbed various points on the scale—from emphasizing purely visual aspects of pattern or structure (e.g., Austria’s Heinz Gappmayr) to stressing pure sound via the peregrinations of rhythm (e.g., Sweden’s Öyvind Fahlström)—but all kept the same essential measure(s).

2. For a full world tour of concretism, see Solt’s 1968 introduction to Concrete Poetry: A World View, available at: https://www.ubu.com/papers/solt/intro.html.

3. (Of course, alternatively, conceptualism is simply the first 21st century international poetry movement.)

4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, New York: Cosmio Classics 2007. 4.121: Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds its reflection in language, language cannot represent. What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language. Propositions show the logical form of reality. They display it.

5. In this “for what,” I am in no way implying anything like a purpose; my “what” refers to the Thing, the receptor presumably presumed by the presentation. By the fact of presentation. There is the thing of the mirror, but this seems a stand-in for the thing of the gaze as such. Which is the Thing of the Thing, the Ding in what could be termed a Dingkunst. If gaze is id and voice superego (Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso, 2012. 701), then the aesthetic confrontation in my work, for example, becomes a confrontation with the demand of the aesthetic as such. A demand that must, it goes without saying, be refused. Only by refusing to answer the aesthetic demand—only by refusing to supply an aesthetic argument—is there the possibility of suspending order. Not subverting it, nothing that sadly ambitious or glamorous, just suspend it, enacting the moment before one asks that Time “stay,” which is the moment before the categories (and their imperatives) spring into being. For to refuse to master the moment is to fail to obey the call of the Law. More precisely, to neither slap on a badge nor call a cop. In this sense, I write so that I cannot know. More precisely, I do not write so that I will not know. As often happens, much is hidden in the notes.