Notes on Conceptualisms

by Robert Fitterman & Vanessa Place
Ugly Duckling Presse 2009
Reviewed by Ken L. Walker


A Hard Rock and Whatever

noc coverOver a few beers at a Louisville microbrewery, a close friend and I recently tried to track the origin of a specific field of poetry.  Both he and I began going in different directions and ended at separate (metaphysical) destinations.  Rather sober critical-detectives.

Finding the origin of a thing can fetch a being’s understanding of that thing’s specific traits and qualities, whether it be the universe, consciousness, the Soul, Whitey, or art.  But, when readers and writers of poetry look at the origin of a movement and become riddled with confusion (i.e. Modernism), it is helpful to at least be placed at the center of the institutional tornado via that thing‘s philosophical foundation. 

Regarding the case of Conceptual Poetry, Craig Dworkin can help.  Dworkin wrote the introduction to the UBUWeb’s Anthology of Conceptual Writing in 2003, in which he declared that conceptual writing was

not so much writing in which the idea is more important than anything else as a writing in which the idea cannot be separated from the writing itself: in which the instance of writing is inextricably intertwined with the idea of Writing: the material practice of écriture.

Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place act as origin-private-investigators (hired out by a mysterious woman at a cocktail party) in their new amusing and arrow-sharp work of theoretical appointment, Notes on Conceptualisms. The  book is as big as a battery, fits in a back or front pocket, then grows as large as a water cooler which later carves out its own private bay.  Concerned readers will be made to realize the importance of delegation, of allocating a mass of artists with an ideological background.  NoC rarely falls short in its attempt to do such things, whereas similar taglines (American Hybrid, “Experimental” poetry, etc.) do just that, tripping and falling face-first.

In the foreword, Fitterman says that the book is basically “a collection of notes, aphorisms, quotes and inquiries.”  Nothing particularly too heady.  More bourbon than scotch, more jug of wine than horizontally-stored bottle.  Later in the foreword, Fitterman, with endeavoring exactitude, says that “Conceptual Writing . . . might best be defined not by the strategies used but by the expectations of the readership or thinkership.”  The actual Notes section begins with the notion that “Conceptual Writing is allegorical writing” and runs through impressions and precepts of:  failure being a goal, capitalism being a message that equally consumes its own self (even this book review), the institutional framework that stilts writing/the writing world, and, the “possibility of possibility.”  The attempt for destination not having destination rarely steers off course.  However, this book is not a work of symbolism; it is a work of layers, the sedimentary deposit type, not the cake kind.

The emphasis on “thinkership” may throw you off, in the same way that a daunting Philosophy course might.  But, fear not fools, you will be allowed to stay an idiot if that be your fancy.  This is theory, but fun theory — though there are plenty of multi-tiered-ideological sandwich bags to unzip, offering a Lacanian (slightly through Alain Badiou), post-Marxist conflict theory (via Benjamin Buchloch, Walter Benjamin, Slavoj Zizek, Theodor Adorno, etc.) view of art and the art-world (two separate things, keep in mind), all in the cold vein of Ludwig Wittgenstein.  The only problem with the project is how closely wed it stays to the project.  I mean to say that NoC is unrelenting in its perpetual task to stay conceptual, that plain-speak is layered, allegorical and witty, rather than plain-speak for the layman only.  As well, the only other possible impasse is that the book provides a serious non-background to something as serious as Conceptual writing.  The gloss-over is brief and the glossary lists Fitterman’s and Place’s colleagues and friends as other Conceptual writers to read for fill-in knowledge.  But the book is steeped in a sort-of fuck-you-humility which never appears to be ironic; there is even a  breakdown of the overall institutionalism of writing.

Movements in art and writing used to possess a reality while also responding to it.  Romanticism, followed by Modernism act as the umbrellas for Imagism, Objectivism, surrealism, Dada, etc.  In the times of those specific movements, writers (especially poets) embroidered exclusively-concocted flags for each movement (Tzara, Marinetti, Pound, Williams, Loy, etc.), perhaps flags on fire, but flags nevertheless.  Toilets hung on bureaucratic white walls and plums were stolen from refrigerators.  However, Christian Bok is not necessarily OuLiPo’s flag-carrier; neither is Kenneth Goldsmith or Craig Dworkin for Conceptual writing, though Goldsmith wrote a book (Day) longer than a dictionary of word origins while simultaneously calling his work (Conceptual, mind you) derivative and unimaginative, unoriginal and illegible.  The dividing line now acts as a circle.  The token has been placed upside-down, the coin-slot painted over.

Granted, that is a bit harsh and extreme; but think further:  we have no great movement to possess in and of itself or for ourselves; and, we are hyper-ingested with instant heart-anesthetizing gratification.  Earthquakes and hurricanes equal phone-donations.  Knowing the whereabouts and body parts of the leviathan and doing anything about it (with tied-hands) before it’s too late is the difficult part.  So, we make art; some of us put on red gloves and hit capitalism straight in the gut, trying to knock it breathless.  Conceptual writers would not punch; they’d chop up the gloves putting single words on every boxing shard and would glue the subsequent pieces to a casket.

Art, like all social engagement, necessitates ideological and theoretical backing.  That backing becomes the liquid concrete with which to make manifesto into drivewayNoC does just this for the confusion that American poetry has been faced with since (quite possibly) the 1970s. 

I recently interviewed Fitterman and he claimed that part of the offense of the book was to place the book between a “hard rock and whatever,” which is also something his father used to frequently say. 

So, what’s a noise if only a few folks can hear it?  NoC would more than likely call that unheard noise a possibility.  The petite, wallet-sized book fits perfectly to that impulse that the tree, in fact, did fall in the forest.  And, you should go see where the hell it fell.