Editing Modernism in Canada


November 11, 2014

Conceptual Writing and the Avant-Garde in Canada

by Michael Nardone


Just days before the Avant Canada gathering in St. Catharines, the US-based journal Lana Turner published an outstanding collection of essays as part of a forum on historical and contemporary avant-garde practices and politics. In several of the 18 essays, conceptual writing is attacked directly and indirectly. David Lau, co-editor of Lana Turner, writes in the introduction to the forum that “if the avant-garde meant anything, it meant anti-capitalist, anti-status quo of the political economy,” and then details an account of “avant-garde co-optation at work in conceptual writing and the related practice of ‘curating’ digital archives of experimental art and literature.” In an important essay that problematizes race in historical conceptualizations of the avant-garde, Cathy Park Hong writes: “Conceptual writing is, for all its declarations, pathetically outdated and formulaic in its analog need to bark back incessantly at the original.” Kent Johnson constructs a conception of a “left front of the arts” from an earlier Lana Turner piece in which he declared conceptual writing “the new right-wing of the poetic ‘avant-garde.’” In this second essay, Johnson builds his argument on top of Peter Bürger’s problematic conceptualizion of the historical avant-garde, and then puts forward a simplified binary of conceptual practices that puts on one side “the heroic Chilean CADA conceptualism of the 1980s” and “the hyper-cynical, Museum-craving U.S. conceptualism of our day” on the other.

I reflected on these essays throughout the Avant Canada conference. My own paper – “On Sonic Disobedience: Phonopoetics and the Idle No More Round Dance Interventions” – put forward an argument close to Johnson’s own: “Any new ‘avant-garde’ poetics worth the historical resonance of the term will need something qualitatively more than aesthetics alone – something beyond mere prosody and theory.” Additionally, I took up Joshua Clover’s “basic orientations for a historical avant-garde in the present moment” with one edit: “One: it will not be identifiable via formal [medial] similarities to previous avant-gardes. Two: it will take as its basic provocations a set of propositions about immediate social antagonism. Three: it will draw its relation to race class gender from contemporary rifts. Four: it will align itself first with the negation of the current social arrangement including the negation of culture both as a medium for transmission and as such.” As thankful as I am for these essays, and as necessary and timely many of these critiques are for our moment, I want to offer four brief replies in regard to what I think are insufficient critiques of conceptual writing offered in the forum.

1.) Following Christian Bök’s paper at Avant Canada, I would say that those critics of conceptual writing who argue for conceptual writing’s absorption into or affinity with neoliberal politics choose to “willfully ignore” a great deal in their criticisms. Too often these criticisms buy into the persona performed by Kenneth Goldsmith at the cost of neglecting the works themselves. Often, these criticisms are most lacking in terms of what I would call a “medial blindspot,” in which they ignore the forms of textual production that are central to the diverse practices of conceptual writing: the material, technological and social infrastructures of the works, and the cultures or ecologies of their circulation. The politics of these forms of production and circulation should not be neglected in age of Edward Snowden and Aaron Schwartz. (I will leave this point perhaps insufficiently detailed at this moment, as I will be taking up specifically this project in my doctoral dissertation and hope to share excerpts of that work as I compose it.)

2.) In attempting to trouble the cultural politics of conceptual writing – which I do agree are worth troubling – too much effort is spent on what is wrong with it. Insufficient space has been taken up to think out how various tactics and strategies of conceptual writing may be useful to other (politically-oriented) practices of writing for our moment. For example, I would argue that one of the most important aspects of conceptual writing is its scrutiny of the document and its implicit focus on what John Guillory has termed “information genres.” (Here, I am echoing aspects of Darren Wershler’s paper at Avant Canada.) Examples of this scrutiny of documents have been evident in the works of Vanessa Place and Divya Victor, amongst others. In terms of the Avant Canada conference, I would say that Jordan Able’s Un/Inhabited and Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia are two outstanding examples of how the scrutiny of documents and information genres can lead toward a potent critique and even an unraveling of settler-colonial rhetoric and discourse.

3.) I worry that critiques that set up such simplified binaries around and against conceptual writing, such as Johnson’s, reinforce what I see as a troubling narrative (too often propagated from “within” conceptual writing) that locates conceptual writing as solely emergent from a discussion of three or four (white, heterosexual) men, while ignoring the practices, discussions and publications of so many other poets. Such simplified binaries ignore Adrian Piper; they ignore Harryette Mullen and M. NourbeSe Philip; they ignore the work of CHAIN edited by Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr; they ignore Vanessa Place who has been central throughout; they ignore I’ll Drown My Book. I could, unfortunately, go on.

4.) Finally, I’d simply like to point to the generational milieu in which many (if not all) of the most polemical critiques of conceptual writing take place. What may be a clear positioning of aesthetics and cultural politics between peers of a particular (set of) generation(s) is not a fait accompli for those poets who have “come up” in the wake of conceptual writing and digital repositories such as the EPC, UbuWeb, PennSound, and Eclipse Archive. If anything, the compositional techniques, the modes of textual production and circulation, and the vast and accessible repositories of historical and contemporary works that are synonymous with or have been troublingly absorbed into the discourse of conceptual writing have significantly contributed to the breadth of effective tactics and strategies that might be taken up by future avant-gardes.

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