Is Conceptual writing still interesting? Not that long ago—in the summer of 2013— Robert Archambeau looked at the buzz around Calvin Bedient’s and Amy King’s attacks on Conceptualism and claimed that, yes, Conceptualism was indeed still interesting. Arguing that “things we find interesting, much more than things we find beautiful or cute or gaudy or charming, invite and demand us to be with them or against them,” Archambeau wrote that the small hornets’ nest kicked up by King and Bedient stood as “testimony to conceptualism’s interest—and in this sense affirm[ed] conceptualism’s success on its own terms.”
Conceptualism’s claim on us lies with its demand that we choose sides. Its defenders cite many reasons for wanting to play on the Conceptualist team. Vanessa Place has claimed in a number of venues that Conceptualism mounts a frontal assault on capitalism. As Kenny Goldsmith argues—repeatedly and variously in Uncreative Writing—Conceptualism attacks the present order of poetry, in no small part because it is boring in novel ways and because it mirrors the present order of technology. For Marjorie Perloff, it represents the truly new while drawing on modernism. By the same token, Conceptualism’s detractors find all sorts of reasons to dislike it. Amy King maintains that Conceptualism actually supports the present order of capitalism. Alan Davies says that it is boring in a boring way. For Bedient, Conceptualism stunts political action. It represents the old, not the new; the forces of reaction, not the agents of change. I could go on, but you get the point. Conceptualism’s ambiguities provide ample ground for dispute and that dispute is a sign that Conceptualism is interesting.
As Archambeau points out, “interesting” as an aesthetic judgment also registers our sense of pleasurable or unpleasurable irritation. The interesting work defies our expectations. This element of surprise means that the “interesting” is always in danger of becoming annoying on the one hand or stale-dated on the other. The interesting speaks to a moment. Has Conceptualism’s moment passed? There is an odd radio silence about Conceptualism these days. I can easily imagine a time when Ron Silliman’s recent Against Conceptual Poetry would have generated some good, harsh argument. Perhaps I am looking in the wrong places, but I don’t see that argument anywhere, beyond Vanessa Place’s witty and somewhat predictable response in The Constant Critic. In other words, there hasn’t been much third-party action recently, just the occasional call-and-response of the interested players. A year and a half after Archambeau’s article—as we are clearing the snows of 2015--can we say that he is still right?
I am going to argue that he is, but not in the way it might first seem. While we have to take seriously Conceptualism’s demand that we choose sides, we should recognize that Conceptualism makes such choices difficult. The most compelling Conceptualist works seem to demand that we take a position, however uncomfortable, in relation to the specificity of their found materials, no matter how impossible that position may be. But that doesn’t mean that we need to decide whether or not to throw our lot in with Conceptualism as a whole. Conceptualism has established itself. It has found its institutional niche. To that extent, the moment for polemics about Conceptualism has probably passed.
In order to make my argument that Conceptualism is about difficult or even impossible choices, and in order to put Conceptualism in the broader context of avant-garde tactics and strategies, I want to answer my initial question with yet another question. As Doug Nufer put it in a discussion about Conceptualism a few years ago: “the essential question for anyone who would explain this stuff: isn’t it just bullshit?” (3). The argument about Conceptualism—the argument about “the interesting” and the avant—might just come down to this. Is it, or isn’t it, bullshit?
So, I want to talk about bullshit. What is at issue in my discussion is the structure of bullshit. I will not ask whether Conceptualism is in fact nothing...