conceptualism

John Nyman

The following piece appears as part of the month-long series “Conscientious Conceptualism and Poetic Practice” on the blog, curated by guest editor Andy Verboom.

What is conceptualism? For at least the last few years, it has been difficult to answer this question without betraying a certain bias, or at least a certain perspective or ‘take.’ For many, the term is synonymous with the capital-c Conceptualism trumpeted by critic Marjorie Perloff and figureheaded by poet/artist Kenneth Goldsmith. For them, Conceptualism is the logical response to this situation: in today’s world, appropriation (e.g., retyping The New York Times) is the only innovative form of literary experimentation, and the only good literature is experimentally innovative.

Minus the absolutism, these don’t seem like bad ideas, and some of the works they’ve produced have made a significant contribution to contemporary literature. The problem is that absolutist applications of the ideas behind these works risk pushing their authors beyond the limits of basic sensitivity and responsibility. So even while Conceptualism is purported to represent a critical and democratic literature, its authors can resort to dismissing some of the real effects of their writing as sub-literary trivialities. At this juncture, Conceptualism takes on a form strikingly familiar to those who study systemic oppression: when a group upholds a certain system of values above all others—even if the chosen values are supposed to be neutral or inherently anti-oppressive—that system coincides with the systemic exclusion of voices who hold real stakes in the values left to the wayside.

The harm that can be caused by this kind of systemic exclusion became widely acknowledged in March, 2015, after Goldsmith performed a slightly reordered copy of Michael Brown’s autopsy report. The gesture was quickly recognized as the effort of a privileged artist to cash in on a trendy political topic by appropriating and disseminating the spectacle of black suffering, all while masking his motivations behind a ‘radical’ technique whose novelty was supposed to act as a kind of ethical panacea.

For many, the ensuing outrage exposed a split between what Joshua Clover calls genealogical (aesthetic or formalist) and historical (social and political) avant-gardes—a binary with deep connections to the recently spotlighted disjunction between intention and effect. I’m partial, however, to Brian Kim Stefans’ critique in “Open Letter to the New Yorker,” which he wrote in response to Alec Wilkinson’s profile of Goldsmith in the magazine. Stefans is able to pinpoint the violence embedded in Goldsmith’s approach while also acknowledging that Goldsmith was, in fact, concerned with both formal and political factors. According to Stefans, “the Michael Brown piece … was a testing of the properties of conceptual writing on intractable material that would inevitably create a stir but in which the artist had no investment.” [Editor’s Note: Stefans’ “Open Letter to the New Yorker” has since been taken down from his website. A summary of it can be found on Harriet, but the text quoted here is not presently available online.]

Key for Stefans, then, is not the question of whether an artist pays more attention to politics or to aesthetics but whether they acknowledge the role of their own identity in the work they create and profit from. In Conceptualism, the lack of this acknowledgment is neither hypothetical nor abstract; it is the concrete principle informing the aesthetic values through which oppression manifests. Appropriately, Cathy Park Hong (quoting James Baldwin) calls it the delusion of whiteness. In her words:

The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the specious belief that renouncing subject and voice is anti-authoritarian, when in fact such wholesale pronouncements are clueless that the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties like voice to alter conditions forged in history. The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be “post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are.

As a white conceptualist, I have a responsibility to acknowledge and act on Hong’s exposition. Here is one way I might respond: if the (white) Conceptualist pursuit of a post-identity literature is an ethical failure, we should fight it by promoting an identity-based literature. This is the response I’m tempted to make. It’s logical, formulaic, and—in a word—easy. And yet, I think this is the wrong response, at least for me. To explain why, however, I need to briefly retreat from the heady parliament of Conceptualism and its critics to explore how their ideas permeate my own embodied universe—that of a white, straight, cis-man and the literary community around him.

Key for Stefans, then, is not the question of whether an artist pays more attention to politics or to aesthetics but whether they acknowledge the role of their own identity in the work they create and profit from.

* * *

As I’ve become more attuned to the concrete effects of privilege and systemic oppression, I’ve begun to notice patterns among many of the writers, scholars, and readers—most of them white, most of them men—who have been kind and honest enough to engage me in discussions of contemporary literature. Sometimes these patterns manifest as direct arguments—for example, when a poem is deemed too political to be true literature. At other times, they appear in seemingly innocent admissions of desire and taste: “I would be more interested if …” or, simply, “I don’t get it.” They can take the form of knee-jerk responses—“oh, people will always say that”—or the subtle yet careful omissions that haunt a writer’s choices of titles, slogans, and citations, both in casual conversation and in published work. Sometimes I know exactly what these gestures are meant to communicate (covertly, of course, and occasionally unbeknownst even to their own authors). Other times they seem intensely ambiguous, and I’ll never know for sure what the gesturer had in mind.

Nonetheless, all of these patterns accumulate into a very clear sentiment: it is the feeling that poetry is becoming just a little too political; that patriarchy, white supremacy, and other forms of oppression are being challenged just a little too aggressively; and that those who have nothing or little to gain from mounting such a challenge are being gradually evicted from the creative landscape.

Like the Conceptualist aesthetic in which it is formalized, this is a sentiment with deep problems. From a rational standpoint, it is consistently posed from sites of privilege apart from which its underlying principles are meaningless. And yet, more to the point, to introduce it into a discussion at all can be directly harmful.

… all of these patterns accumulate into a very clear sentiment: it is the feeling that poetry is becoming just a little too political; that patriarchy, white supremacy, and other forms of oppression are being challenged just a little too aggressively …

I applaud efforts to call out or denounce those whose gestures reinforce this sentiment and the systems of patriarchy, white supremacy, and other forms of oppression it fuels, especially when those efforts originate in a sense of personal need. However, my intention in writing this piece is not to call out or denounce. How could it be when I, too, contribute to the toxic sentiments of systemic oppression? Reflecting carefully, I know that I perform many of the same gestures I pointed out above. More importantly, many of the other individuals whose gestures propagate oppression are also people with whom I have a professional connection and for whom I have a degree of personal respect.

I’m writing this piece because my commitments to openness, attentiveness, and, in short, listening to those who take the time to confide in me—commitments I have for a long time believed essential to ethical participation in the writing community—also make me an active part of certain forms of oppression. Nevertheless, I still value these commitments, and I honestly doubt whether I am physically capable of giving them up. As Divya Victor advises, I strive to “account for the bodies and lives of … living practitioners and their vital and thriving practices,” even, and sometimes especially, when those practices and the lives that practice them are toxic.

I’m writing this piece because my commitments to openness, attentiveness, and, in short, listening to those who take the time to confide in me … also make me an active part of certain forms of oppression.

If you decide, in light of my commitments, that you have nothing to gain by reading further, I’d say your decision is more than justified. Everyone has to take their own stand, where they stand. Where I stand—white, male, and in uncannily good company with oppressive sentiments—is here: even in the face of toxicity, unconditional denunciation cannot be the path I take forward. If I am to account honestly for my surroundings and myself—both what I am and what I could be—I need to find a way of proceeding differently.

* * *

To return to Hong’s challenge: why can’t I (and I do intend, here, to refer to myself only) respond by calling out and cutting through the “delusion of whiteness” and identifying those who are supposedly “post-identity” as the individuals they really are? First: Even if I support the critics of Conceptualism, continuing to frame them as critics reinforces the system of oppression that keeps them on the outside. This is also exactly the game that justifies oppression’s apologists, since—if Conceptualism’s critics are only critics, if they are only nay-sayers with no aesthetic principles of their own to contribute—it makes sense that their input should be limited and, ultimately, tokenized. Hong’s point is completely different: rather than praising poets of colour for explicitly resisting Conceptualism, she emphasizes the untold histories in which African American and Asian American writers are at the heart of the experimental tradition.

conceptualism

Jordan Abel’s Un/inhabited, page 124

One can also look to contemporary conceptual poets of colour like M. NourbeSe Philip and Jordan Abel to understand how developing alternatives to Conceptualism doesn’t mean absolute opposition to a set of formal techniques but instead means navigating the ways identity both resists and requires those techniques. In these conceptualisms, aesthetic innovation is fostered in the context of personal investments and vice versa. As contexts for each other, they allow the work to unfold in directions both more specific and more fruitful than the grand schemes suggested by ‘art,’ ‘justice,’ or ‘the new.’ This is, I think, one aspect of what Abel has in mind when he speaks of balancing resistance and presence in his work. It’s not simply a matter of checking two boxes, like “critical” and “creative” or “conceptualism” and “identity.” Rather, the aim is to traverse the no man’s land between contradictory extremes and, if one is lucky, to mark a path for others in the form of concrete experience and understanding.

There is nothing more or less conceptual about Abel’s work than Goldsmith’s, and I could have easily begun my discussion with the former. Perhaps that would have made for a better discussion. Almost certainly, moreover, the fact that I did begin with Goldsmith constitutes a certain kind of violence or microaggression, not only against those for whom Goldsmith’s work has been harmful but also against anyone who has more to learn from a conceptualism that doesn’t suffer the delusion of whiteness.

Yet (and this is the second reason I think my initial response to Hong was the wrong one) there is whiteness in the avant-garde. Pink, fleshy whiteness. Whiteness I’ve read and talked to and that has made my stomach churn. Whiteness that stares back at me when I try to call myself by that always tentative and oddly shameful title: writer.

There’s no guarantee that I should write at all—there are no absolutes here—but if I am to write poetry, I have to do so from the position I really occupy, both for myself and others, in the writing community.

The thing about identity, of course, is that it isn’t the same for everyone. Almost certainly, Abel, Philip, Hong, and many other writers of colour have learned to break down the binary of experimental aesthetics and urgent, honest acknowledgment of embodied presence far better than me or any other white conceptualist. But this doesn’t mean I can acknowledge my own presence by emulating their strategies any more than it means I should respond with mere obstinacy. There’s no guarantee that I should write at all—there are no absolutes here—but if I am to write poetry, I have to do so from the position I really occupy, both for myself and others, in the writing community. And it is a strange community, one where living voices are all too often silenced and where delusions can quickly become the most concrete landmarks for new generations of pathmakers.

I did start with Goldsmith for a reason, after all: like many of the friends and acquaintances I mentioned in this piece’s second section, I am invested in his work. And there’s no getting around the fact that he is very much a model of what I might aspire to be as a writer. It’s a toxic form of identification, yes. It’s also the voice I have to speak with, and I believe quite firmly that it has a peculiar set of resources to offer. The question that remains, for me, is whether and how those resources can be put to use.

John Nyman’s first book of poetry, Players, was published with Palimpsest Press in spring, 2016, and has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. His asemic/erasure/appropriation of Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis: A Selection, is featured alongside other visual works on his Instagram. Originally from Toronto, John is currently completing a PhD in Theory and Criticism at Western University.

One Comment

Sharon Goodier

Hi, John. I recognize you from The Bold and the Beautiful and The Art Bar in Toronto. I believe it was at an Art Bar open mic that you announced you were going to Western University. This article defines Conceptualism in a new way for me. I thought it was all about concepts i.e. disembodied ideas. Period. Its link to systemic oppression seems to me to come as you say from the artists ignoring the fact that their concepts rise out of socially constructed ideas and experiences. I don’t subscribe to the splitting of poetic and formalist v/s social and political. Genealogy IS history, or rather all genealogy is history. And I agree that acknowledging one’s identity brings a consciousness that acts as a backdrop to one’s writing and makes us more observant of the ways in which others are marginalized and “the aesthetics through which oppression manifests itself.” As a female poet struggling for recognition, I am aware that we are playing a game created by men for men on a field designed by men and while many more women are getting published today (When I started every poetry magazine published 9 men and 1 woman in every issue) there is still a white, male, hetero, abled ethic that results in more male reviewers and more books by males being reviewed.
I don’t believe the answer is to establish percentages as some American advocates are doing. There have to be more poetry journals run by women, as there are in the U.S. where despite having only 10 times the population of Canada they have 100 times the number of journals and that doesn’t even count the online ones.
But getting back to Conceptualism. I like the marriage of form and content and the awareness of the fragmentation of our world and relationships that results in fragmented lines and grammar. The average reader, though, probably gets lost in these highly esoteric forms and we have a large readership in Canada that is average. I am a co-founder of the renewed Art Bar Reading Series in Toronto one of about 30 readings a month many of which are standing room only. Listening to poetry is definitely more popular than buying the books a fact that may make a lot of Conceptual poetry inaccessible especially when heard rather than read. We need poetry APS for phones so drivers in traffic jams can chill out listening to poetry. I enjoyed this article and hope to see you again in Toronto and maybe even to read you dissertation. Sharon Goodier

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