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  • Christian Bök's Xenotext Experiment, Conceptual Writing and the Subject-of-No-Subjectivity:"Pink Faeries and Gaudy Baubles"

Despite the wide impact of transdisciplinary scholarship that has theorized the interconnectedness of literature and science not least within the pages of this journal, this article argues that the Canadian poet Christian Bök's Xenotext Experiment (and conceptual writing in general) reproduces historical epistemologies (including positivism and relativism) that rely on the presumption of disciplinary autonomy. In the sciences, these epistemologies are connected to sociocultural and economic power, extreme resistance to criticality, and the production of normative subject and object positions (including what I term the subject-of-no-subjectivity on the one hand, and the determinist object of scientific positivism on the other). The article explores the implications, problems, and affordances of reproducing historical epistemologies in conceptual writing. The key argument is that the reproduction of historical epistemologies in the disciplinary context of literature yields avant-garde credentials, marginalizing often content-led experimental works that might take as their theme experience and subjective difference (race, class, gender, sexuality, able-bodiedness). This way, contemporary conceptual writing perpetuates the normativity and exclusiveness it inherited from historical avant-garde literature.


The last decade has seen a proliferation of engagements from the humanities with the natural sciences including within affect studies, the new biologies or biosocialities, the new materialisms, feminist [End Page 27] science and technology studies, and literature. These interdisciplinary engagements have taken a variety of shapes ranging from critical friendship,1 to ebullience toward science,2 to the unimaginative or uncritical borrowing of isolated scientific concepts in order to bolster or authenticate a theoretical argument without necessarily taking into account the controversies, critiques, and nuances of debate in the sciences themselves.3 Arguably, an investment in the newness of these debates has led to a tendency to disregard long-standing histories of engagement that have examined the mutual imbrications of the humanities and the sciences4 in journals including Configurations.5

In this context, the Canadian experimental poet Christian Bök has recently issued the provocation that science has replaced literature as the field generating the most imaginative narratives.6 Bök's provocation is linked to a wider presumption within avant-garde poetry that it is impossible to generate new forms of writing since everything has already been done. According to these views, the potential for radical literary innovation has been exhausted, and precedent avant-gardes, specifically the language poets,7 have "pushed poetry as far as poetry on the page can go."8 The belief that other [End Page 28] disciplines including the sciences have the creative edge over poetry has reinvigorated an orientation toward interdisciplinarity in contemporary avant-garde poetics (as well as strategic "uncreativity," which I return to later). There is an interest in producing literature beyond the page, that is, texts "that might easily be mistaken for an interactive sculpture, a mechanized appliance, or even an artificial ecosystem."9 Accordingly, Bök's Xenotext Experiment10 extends poetry into biochemistry. To summarize, Bök encoded a poem (called "Orpheus") into the genome of a microbe so that, in reply, the cell builds a protein that encodes yet another poem (called "Eurydice"). But what kind of science has replaced literature as the field allegedly generating the most imaginative narratives in these contexts? This article explores the particular version of interdisciplinarity staged in Christian Bök's Xenotext Experiment and conceptual writing more generally. Extending the proliferating feminist, queer, and postcolonial critiques11 of avant-garde literature and its normativity, I draw attention to the historical epistemologies reproduced within the Xenotext Experiment and conceptual writing, which underpin normative subject positions and social inequality.

I begin by introducing the project as represented by Bök and the media, including some of its reception, the debates it engendered, and its human and nonhuman key players. To anticipate, the particular phenomena, subjects, and objects produced within the Xenotext Experiment12 include the unmarked, maverick experimental subject, polymath and avant-garde poet Christian Bök; two essential and essentialist [End Page 29] poems called "Orpheus" and "Eurydice"; and a biologically determinist, feminine microbe. I explore what some of the problems and affordances of these subject and object positions might be in the context of contemporary avant-garde poetics.

The Xenotext Experiment: Bök, Polymath

With articles in the Guardian13 and the New Scientist,14 international lecture tours and most recently a book of related poetry,15 the XE attracts a fair amount of attention within and beyond the field of experimental literature. On April 28, 2011, the BBC science pages reported that Christian Bök successfully embedded a poem into the genetic sequence of a microorganism.16 Further, the poet engineered the gene in such a way that it prompts the microorganism to produce a particular protein, which itself is another encoded poem.

The article informs its general audience that cells use their genetic sequences as templates for constructing proteins. Bök manipulated the genetic sequence of a test organism, E. coli, which against all odds now produces the anticipated protein. In his own words, Bök "engineer[ed] a primitive bacterium so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also a useable machine for writing a poem."17 Like Bök's lectures on the project (available on Vimeo18), the BBC report emphasizes the extreme difficulty of devising a two-level chemical cryptogram19 that not only links "letters of the alphabet to specific nucleotides" (that is, the type of molecules that make up a genetic sequence), "[but] also . . . allow[s] the ensuing protein to be decoded back into a brand new poem, by assigning a different set of letters to specific amino acids" (the organic compounds [End Page 30] that make up a protein). It took "Dr. Bok [sic] four years just to work out the code."20

Initially envisioned as a collaboration with scientist Stuart Kauffman, the "iCore Chair for the Institute of Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary,"21 more recent progress reports see Kauffman reduced to a provider of after-hours laboratory space, or disappearing altogether. Bök himself emerges as the maverick who, without formal scientific training, "taught himself molecular biology and computer programming for the purpose of his project."22 "I have . . . done all the genetic engineering and proteomic engineering myself, designing and optimizing the gene on my own, while working out the simulations for the resultant, foldable protein, using my own academic resources," Bök writes in a blog post.23 He called on a commercial lab merely to build the gene for him. This narrative culminates in Bök declaring himself "the first poet in literary history to have engineered a microbe to write poetry."24

The narrative framing of the XE foregrounds the cryptographic complexity, novelty, ambitiousness, and herculean nature of the project, epitomized in the fact that it took Bök four years of failures, near resignations, probability-defying fresh starts, in short, superhuman persistence to invent, or to use Bök's terminology, to "discover" a code that fitted the requirements of the brief. Bök's current objective is to implant the gene into the target organism (D. radiodurans) rather than E. coli. D. radiodurans is thought to be extremely durable, facilitating the postapocalyptic survival of the poem. Finally, in order to consolidate his polymath status, Bök regularly appears as a sculptor. The BBC website, for example, depicts him next to a large-scale model of the gene he built out of so-called Molymod Molecular Kits.25

Authorship Controversy: Pink Microbe or Red Herring?

In 2011, a controversy ensued around the particular enactment of authorship in the XE. US poet Ron Silliman, via Twitter, challenged Bök's claim that the microbe had authored the second poem (which [End Page 31] is enciphered in the protein the microbe produces as a result of its engineered gene). In his blog entry from May 10, 2011,26 Silliman argued that, actually, it was Bök telling the microbe what to write, rather than the other way around. On May 17, 2011, Bök responded as follows:

I think that [Silliman's] objection fails to comprehend the nature of the writing process required to generate these two poems. I do not tell the organism what to write—it tells me what to write. I cannot simply make it say whatever I want, since the biochemical constraints that govern the translation of the genetic sequence into a protein sequence define the parameters for my own expression. I have to respond directly to its own biology. I have to produce a viable, benign protein that is neither cytotoxic to the organism nor destroyed by the organism. I have to generate a gene sequence, optimized for implantation into the organism so that it integrates easily into such a genome. I have to come up with an encipherment for my message that can actually fulfill all these tasks, while saying something both beautiful and meaningful—both in the implanted genome and in the resulting protein. I am, in effect, trying to conduct a kind of dialogue between my own lingual code and the genetic code itself. I might suggest that, in this dialogue, the organism has lots of input, since I am entirely at its beck and call. I have to respond entirely to its rules. I have not written the poem—so much as I have discovered it, finding its "singular potential" among eight trillion, useless ciphers.27

Whether constraints imposed by the microbe's physiology prove the generative principle, or whether it is Bök inscribing his poem upon the reluctant organism, Silliman left Bök's response unchallenged. The controversy dissolved into friendly banter between the two poets ("no worries, Ron").28 It is either Bök telling the bacterium what to say (if you believe Silliman), or the bacterium telling Bök (if you believe Bök). The authorship question was also presented by a member of the audience in the Q&A after a lecture at Simon Fraser University in January 2013, entitled "The Xenotext: A Progress Report,"29 suggesting that the question "who writes?" captures the public imagination.

This framing of the experiment as a question of "Who writes—Bök or E.coli?" that is, the focus on determining authorship one-sidedly, directly parallels the particular either/or distribution of agency [End Page 32] that underpins both scientific positivism and relativism. Locating all agency with the microbe and its biological specificity, Bök pursues a version of positivism, whereas Silliman's reading (which locates control and agency with Bök) amounts to a staging of relativism.

In the natural sciences, positivism often entails a particular language of "finding" or "discovering" something, that is, a previously undiscovered, natural entity in a scientific experiment. This language is reproduced in the XE (Bök "discovered" the one possible cipher, or the one mutually encipherable poem couplet). Scientific "discovery" is seen to be directly opposed to "construction," "fabrication," "bias," "interference," or "falsification," for example. In other words, historical epistemologies depend on a clear distinction between relativism and positivism. The experimenter has either made (up) the facts, or s/he accounts for the facts as they are, that is, something emerges that is not human-made. The credibility of a scientific object depends on whether the experimental subject is seen to have made it (up), or discovered it, which in turn translates into a particular way of determining agency: that is, does agency lie with the experimental subject, or with the object under investigation? These presumptions continue to inform the popular conception of science as well as the version of science enacted in many scientific and literary experiments. Bruno Latour famously linked the paradigm that underlies historical epistemologies to a false dichotomy between mind and world, or what he termed Descartes's "fantasy of a mind-in-vat."30 Latour argued that only from the perspective of an unrealistic, disembodied mind does it make sense to theorize knowledge as distinct from the world. Only from this position does it make sense for a knower to wonder how to connect with the outside world. The Cartesian fantasy is at the root of representationalism, that is, the notion that representations are independent from the practices of representation. Later in this article, I discuss some of the critiques that have been mobilized against representationalism in science studies through more practice-led conceptualizations of scientific experimentation as an intervention.31

By assigning agency (or authorship) to the experimental object, the microbe, Bök effectively stages himself as the mere executor, facilitator, avant-garde poet, the subject of scientific positivism, or [End Page 33] what I term the subject-of-no-subjectivity, aiding the natural emergence of the one "true" poem couplet "inherent" in the experimental constellation. The emphasis on Bök's extensive labor behind the discovery of the poem does not contradict the assignment of exclusive agency to the microbe. Even for those who have access to it, the production of the subject-of-no-subjectivity involves labor and deliberate staging. As Bruno Latour has shown, it is the experimenter's task to facilitate the conditions that allow the experimental object to appear of its own accord.32 I now explore some of the problems with this subject position, including its exclusiveness, purchase on power, and its dependency on the production of marginal subject positions, specifically in the context of avant-garde poetry.

Conceptual Writing: The Contemporary Avant-Garde?

In order to understand what might be at stake in reproducing historical epistemologies in contemporary avant-garde writing practices, I will situate the XE in the wider field of conceptual writing. Arguably, the XE is a unique but representative example that encapsulates several of conceptual writing's defining discourses. They include the implementation of a constraint-based writing procedure; a preoccupation with authorship; the implicit reproduction of historical epistemologies and normative forms of subjectivity and objectivity; and the extension of literature into other disciplines (including the arts and biochemistry).

Conceptual writing encompasses a diverse range of literary forms in which a concept is seen to predetermine the writing process. In other words, the concept is seen to effect the work, whereas its practical execution becomes a "perfunctory affair."33 To give some examples, Christian Bök's EUNOIA34 is a univocal lipogram in which all chapters are composed of words consisting of only one of the vowels respectively. American poet, MoMA's poet laureate, and conceptual writing's figurehead Kenneth Goldsmith's works appropriate or plagiarize already existing language material into a poetic context. For example, The Weather35 is advertised as a transcript of a year's worth of weather reports on New York radio station WIIN. Avant-garde [End Page 34] poet David Melnick's homophonic translation of Homer's Iliad, Men in Aida,36 is a more marginal example of an earlier genealogy of constraint-based, procedural, or rule-governed methodologies, now subsumed under conceptual writing. Alongside the aforementioned, the genre-defining anthology Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing,37 coedited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, enlists novels such as Kathy Acker's Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream (1986), Samuel Beckett's Molloy (1951), James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939), and Georges Perec's A Void (1969) into its project, retrospectively reconfiguring the canonical avant-garde.

With its catchy, simplistic, and provocative poetic strategies that read like synopses of Hollywood blockbusters ("How does a poet ensure his work lives forever?"),38 conceptual writing is a media-friendly poetics that has gained a reach and traction and caught the attention of different publics. Key conceptual writers have garnered the attention of the mainstream media and science journalism. Goldsmith appeared at the White House39 and on US national television, for example. The reporting focused on Goldsmith's wearing a paisley suit as much as on his provocative poetic strategies including "uncreativity," the "unboring boring," and "plagiarism." However, following a verbatim reading of Michael Brown's autopsy report (the black teenager fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015) in the form of a poem at Brown University on March 13, 2015, public opinion appears to have turned against Gold-smith.40 My intention is not to add to the critiques of the racism enacted in Goldsmith's particular piece, but to identify the normative epistemologies and subject and object positions reproduced within conceptual writing that create the possibility for racist works such as "The Body of Michael Brown" to emerge. The following section situates conceptual writing within historical experimental writing practices, and maps out some of the concerns that have shaped its writing strategies. [End Page 35]

"Uncreativity" and the Dichotomy between Authorship and Process

Despite borrowing the name and orientation from the conceptual art movement that emerged in the 1960s, conceptual writing practices were shaped in response to precedent avant-garde literatures (specifically language poetry), and in opposition to mainstream approaches to authorship, specifically lyrical expression (the idea of an author expressing a preexisting "inner" self). A central concern that shapes conceptual writing practices is to explore modes of authorship that go beyond the traditional model of individual subjects expressing themselves. This extends existing problematizations of lyrical forms of expression within language writing, and arguably an orientation within earlier avant-garde literatures that are often seen to enact more collective (rather than subjective) forms of signification. Coeditor of Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing Craig Dworkin confirms an editorial policy that focused on text that "does not seek to express unique, coherent or consistent individual psychologies and that . . . refuses familiar strategies of authorial control."41 He continues that "[i]nstead of natural expression or individual authorial voice, the anthology sought impersonal procedure. Instead of psychological development or dramatic narrative, it sought systems of exhaustive logical . . . permutation."42 In his provocative, manifesto-like Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing, Goldsmith suggests that this concept-led literary machine is not to be interfered with, stating, "[t]o work with a plan that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity. . . . [T]he writer would select the basic form and rules that would govern the solution of the problem. After that, the fewer decisions made in the course of completing the work, the better. This eliminates the arbitrary, the capricious and the subjective as much as possible. This is the reason for using this method."43 The terminology of preventing subjective interference and intervention reoccurs in Dworkin's editorial, where he states that admired works were often omitted from the collection because they had "too much authorial intervention," and that he preferred works incorporating strategies of "automatism, reticence, obliquity and modes of noninterference."44

The rationale that shapes conceptual writing's orientation toward [End Page 36] process and against expression is "uncreativity." Uncreativity as a radical strategy derives from the provocation that any new literary production only adds to the already existing surplus of written material in the digital age. In a context of presumed overproduction, uncreativity is considered the most progressive and radical writing strategy, the one that distances conceptual writing from all precedent avant-gardes. Uncreativity as an orientation is further shaped by the aforementioned presumption that the language poets have exhausted the scope for literary experimentation and that it is impossible to generate new forms of writing since everything has already been done.45 Under the banner of uncreativity, "[t]he conscientious writer's task is . . . to curb productivity." The conscientious writer's task is to reuse, plagiarize, transpose, cut and paste, or re-contextualize already existing language material, ideally in bulk. In other words, conceptual writers "[u]nderstand writing to be more graphic than semantic, more a physically material event than a disembodied or transparent medium for referential communication."46 Conceptual writing practices enact a representational dichotomy between language as a material event and language as semiotic function, and a correlative dichotomy between authorship and process. The rationale of uncreativity connects a commitment to language as a material event to process-led (conceptual) writing, on the one hand, and referentiality and (original) narrative content to authorship, inspiration, innovation, creativity, overproduction, expression, sentimentality (as opposed to intellect) and ultimately the psychological individual, on the other. Accordingly, conceptual writing is not meant to be read (for semantic content). A "thinkership" is thought to have replaced a more traditional readership.47 [End Page 37]

Theory-Driven Perspectives versus the "Turn to Practice" in Science and Technology Studies

I have quoted some of the language of interference, temptation, and interception in relation to conceptual writing, because it derives from the positivist sciences. Historical epistemologies are based on the presumption that experimentation in the sciences is a theory-driven (conceptual?) activity, a derivative test of an existing hypothesis (whose execution might be considered a perfunctory affair). I have already discussed that these epistemologies rely on a particular unmarked version of subjectivity, a subject-of-no-subjectivity, operating an experimental apparatus without bias and interference so as to represent a scientific object-under-investigation (and that, in turn, represents "nature") as it "really is." The clear separation of human interference and "nonhuman," empirical object is seen to guarantee the uncorrupted nature of the discovery, and the facticity of what emerged from the experimental procedure. Historical epistemologies are connected to incontestable truth claims and sociopolitical and economical power. They have been connected to the a priori rejection of criticality, questioning, and the contestation that gender, race, and class-related ideologies could possibly affect the empiricist sciences.48 Presented as an algorithm or automatism running its course with minimal authorial interference, many forms of conceptual writing enact notions of theory-driven experimentation and positivism in the disciplinary context of literature. The strategies designed to bypass the authorial subject do not bypass the authorial subject at all, but inadvertently reproduce the unmarked subject-of-no-subjectivity that, to reiterate, is directly linked to incontestable forms of objectivity, and epistemological and social power. The problems I previously identified in Christian Bök's XE are far from exceptional, but representative for conceptual writing more widely.

As part of an ongoing "turn to practice" in science studies, scholars have rejected objectivist claims of "no interference" in favor of more embodied epistemologies and ontologies that consider the performativity of experimentation. In science and technology studies and related perspectives, the performativity of experimentation refers to the assumption that scientific experiments produce the phenomena [End Page 38] purportedly under investigation.49 From these perspectives, rather than the scientist or experimenter either observing a preexisting object without interfering, or making something up, both experimenter and object under investigation come to be defined within a shared experimental arrangement. How specific phenomena, subjects, and objects are enacted and stabilized within experimental practice in science is subject to enquiry and individual case study. Many case studies and ethnographies of laboratory practice that have been put forward have documented a discrepancy between embodied, localized, situated scientific practices and experiments, and the way they are conceptualized in scientific theories, literatures, and papers.50 From these perspectives, experimental practices always exceed, or even drastically differ from, the concepts they are designed to test, verify, or embody. For example, Bruno Latour famously argued that scientists do something different than what they say they do.51

Arguably, a similar disjuncture exists between the theory and practice of conceptual writing. In conceptual writing, the concepts shape, but do not determine, the writing process and literary output. Consider Marjorie Perloff's close reading of Kenneth Goldsmith's allegedly unreadable work Traffic.52 Traffic records "a twenty-four-hour period of New York radio station WINS (1010 AM) 'Panasonic Jam Cam [Camera]' traffic reports at ten-minute intervals on the first day of a holiday weekend."53 Perloff argues that subjective decisions have shaped Goldsmith's allegedly machinic transcriptions. Traffic, she argues, is hardly passive recycling. There is "something surreal about this seemingly ordinary sequence of traffic reports."54 Artful authorial manipulation, Perloff suggests, has turned the original traffic [End Page 39] report into a "theatre of the absurd." For example, on close reading, the twenty-four-(rather than forty-eight) hour period covered in Traffic appears to extend over an entire bank holiday weekend.

Arguably, Goldsmith's unacknowledged manipulation, authorial interference, and staging of "unoriginal genius," to use Perloff's term, parallels the unacknowledged labor involved in staging the powerful, unmarked subject position in scientific positivism. In the context of avant-garde literature (rather than science), conceptual writing practices might not be staging epistemological truth claims, objectivity, or positivism, but they are staging (unoriginal) genius, power, and the spectacle of self-transformation. Ultimately, these practices and stagings have engendered Goldsmith's emergence as the MoMA's poet laureate,55 for example. In the disciplinary context of art and literature, conceptual writing practices might not produce scientific matters of fact (compared to experimental practices in the sciences). But staging the principle of uncreativity (in opposition to creativity and mainstream literature), they produce avant-garde credentials and status within and beyond their field.

The Xenotext Experiment: The Microbe, Biological Determinism and the Concept of Gene Control

I now resume my discussion of the humans and nonhumans produced in the XE. So far, I have identified the quasi-positivist, impossibility-defying, repeat-failure-surviving, maverick experimenter Christian Bök, and the uniquely enciphered poem couplet whose "discovery," we now see, Bök's avant-garde credentials depend on. This section takes issue with the feminine nymphet and microbe, whose subjectivity is reduced to its materiality, and its materiality to its function as a formulaic constraint, that is, its role in narrowing down the range of possible ciphers. Donna Haraway and others have argued that experimental practices in the sciences are naturalized, hidden, and increasingly insidious techniques of producing gendered, normative, and exclusive subject positions. Historical epistemologies not only define those who have access to the normative subject positions created therein, but also those who do not. Haraway asks, for example, "How did some men become transparent, self-invisible, legitimate witnesses of matter of fact, while most men [End Page 40] and all women were made simply invisible, removed from the scene of the action. . . ?"56

The microbe as experimental object substitutes or acts as a generative constraint, the concept that determines the writing process. It, or to go along with Bök's gendering of the microbe, "she," is integrated into the experimental system, engendering further objects, including the cipher and the two poems "Eurydice" and "Orpheus." Symptomatically for the sidelining of semiotic content in conceptual writing (and the foregrounding of the material working relationship with the text), Bök's poems have received less media and critical attention than Bök himself and his doctoring the microbe. The previously mentioned BBC report neglects to relate that the benign protein produced as a result of the new gene causes the microbe to fluoresce with a rosy or pink glow. This pink glow is the microbe's enactment of the semiotic content of the poetic response enciphered in the protein, the first line of which reads "[t]he faery is rosy of glow."57 When Bök himself mentions the content of the poems, he describes the pink faery's glow as the feminine response of a "nymphet" to his "herdboy's" poem, "Orpheus" (which begins with the phrase "Any style of life is prim").58 In less normative subcultural contexts (such as my own), a pink faery might be as likely to be male as female, trans or gender nonconforming, suggesting interesting queer reading possibilities of microbial poetry, but this is not my intention.

The XE not only stages a biologically determined (feminine) subject or object, the microbe (Euridyce), whose agency is reduced to the agency of her biological body, but also biological determinism itself as a particular version of biology. Feminist theorist Sara Ahmed reminds us that what counts as biology has been a question within feminist enquiry rather than a given.59 The version of biology reproduced here, where biology dictates, as opposed to influences, the microorganism's behavior, has come under critique not only from within feminism, but also queer and gender studies, critical race studies, sciences studies, philosophy, and increasingly the natural [End Page 41] sciences and molecular biology themselves. Arguably, the concept of biological determinism (a priori of the XE) is now practically untenable. Framed by two mutually exclusive propositions, does the experiment work or does it not work, R. durans Euridyce's agential room for maneuver is narrowed to the extreme and ultimately closed down within the experimental set up of the XE. "Her" options, such as destroying the protein (hence critiquing Bök's poems?), not producing the right protein (hence articulating something other than the anticipated response), dying en masse, et cetera, are constituted as failures of the experiment. They are non-events, the details of which have yet to be mined for their subversive potential. What Bök does report (as a failure), that is, R. durans's noncompliance and liability to destroy the manipulated protein, suggests that it or she is a particularly queer subject who refuses to cooperate on Bök's terms entirely. However that may be, what is at stake for Bök are his avantgarde credentials that in turn depend on the fact that the microbe's responses are seen to be independent of his influence.

The XE not only enacts biological determinism, but more specifically, a form of genetic determinism. Genetic determinism is a simplistic and powerful concept based on what the feminist historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller60 discussed as the generative metaphors of gene action and gene control. Gene action is the prevalent idea that genes produce their effects, or that "all development is merely an unfolding of pre-existing instructions encoded in the nucleotide structures in DNA."61 This discourse has influenced scientists, administrators, funding agencies, and policymakers, and it has provided "powerful rationales and incentives for mobilizing resources, for identifying particular research agendas, and for focusing scientific energies and attention in particular directions."62

From its conception, many scientists have argued that there were serious problems with the metaphors of gene action and gene control. These metaphors have shaped the progress of modern genetic science one-sidedly, Fox Keller argues, at the cost of more nuanced, developmental alternatives that biologists have proposed since the early twentieth century. More complex research trajectories were technically possible all along, but they were marginalized because no one was interested. As a consequence, gene expression continues to be little understood. It is now known that the causal connection [End Page 42] between genotype—all the genes in the cells of an organism—and phenotype—what the organism looks like and how it behaves—defies the simplicity presumed in the gene control and gene action models. Epigenetics or recent work on the microbiome for many confirm that social and cultural determinants affect basic biology, which in return might affect ecology, geology, in other words, Earth itself. Famously, the current geo-historical epoch has been termed the Anthropocene, reflecting the significant effects of human behavior on the Earth's ecosystems. This describes the active role of human agency, or human presence, not only in scientific facts, but also in all matter formerly known as nature.63 The version of objectivity enacted in otherwise innovative writing practices that relies on the separability of natural phenomena from human agency and the autonomy of science is no longer tenable in this context, if ever it was.

While I commend Bök's engaging with science in a way that is not merely "writing about" it, I question his presumption that literature and science are originally two autonomous, self-contained disciplines, and consequently I contest the particular strategy he adopts to connect them. The XE enacts an additive version of interdisciplinarity, "integrat[ing] two mutually isolated domains of research [poetry and science]—domains that might not have, otherwise, had any reason to interact, except under the innovative conditions of this artistic exercise."64 One of the problems with this additive approach is that the XE stages an uncritical engagement, if not an enchantment, with mainstream science, specifically microbiology, reproducing many of its normative, positivist presumptions, implicitly and explicitly.

Readers of Configurations will be familiar with a long genealogy of transdisciplinary scholarship investigating the intersection of science and literature in scientific experimentation rather than work from the presumption of disciplinary autonomy. Situated within feminism, queer studies, critical race studies, science and technology studies, sociology, anthropology, and the natural sciences, longstanding transdisciplinary perspectives have rejected human exceptionalism "and its corollary that culture is distinct and contrasted with nature."65 From these perspectives, scientific knowledge procedures cannot be disentangled from prevalent ideologies, imaginaries, [End Page 43] fictions, and narratives. The latter are always already embodied in what comes to be naturalized within scientific positivism. For example, Donna Haraway's concept of figural realism describes how normative metaphors, ideologies, and narratives are literally embedded in scientific concepts, embodied in experimental apparatuses, enacted in experimental practices, and realized in what manifests as a scientific fact, body, or object.66 From this perspective, the ways in which fictions and imaginaries materialize in scientific practices are far less voluntarist than those staged by Bök. His objective to "infect" genetics with the "poetic vectors" of its own discourse so as "to extend poetry itself beyond the formal limits of the book"67 might be countered with the perspective that poetry and fiction always already operate beyond the formal limits of the book: fictions might shape what emerges as fact in scientific practice and experimentation, for example. These extended, entangled workings of literary and scientific practice are disregarded in the rationale that shapes the XE, that is, to connect two otherwise separate domains. They are also disregarded in the rationale, uncreativity, which shapes conceptual writing strategies more generally. Like the commitment to extend literary experimentation into other domains, uncreativity is shaped within a literary context (of exhaustion and overproduction), hence by disciplinary introspection. From transdisciplinary perspectives, a strong argument for the innovation of different imaginaries toward different futures is crucial and should be pursued in progressive avantgarde literatures. At the heart of this progressive avant-garde project would be a revised conception of what it means to be the subject and object of experimental writing practices, and, specifically, the engagement and production of nonnormative subjects and objects.

Unsurprisingly, more subversive approaches to conceptual writing have come from those whose subjectivities are unlikely to disappear from their literary output (and who cannot and do not want to divorce semantic content or signification from authorial process). "Softer," more nuanced (and often feminist, BAME, LGBTQI, and/or working class) approaches to conceptual writing by poets and writers [End Page 44] such as Dodie Bellamy, Renee Gladman, and Bhanu Kapil, and which are represented in I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women,68 for example, have been challenging the dichotomy between authorship and process in creative practice, opening up more nuanced research trajectories. Caroline Bergvall asks, for example, "How does one put a text together that depersonalizes, that disengages from personalized modes, yet manages to engage with processes of personification and identification?"69


This article has drawn on critiques of scientific relativism, positivism, biological determinism, gene control, and additive versions of interdisciplinarity to challenge some of the long-term presumptions that inform Christian Bök's Xenotext Experiment and conceptual writing practices more widely. As it establishes itself as the contemporary literary avant-garde, conceptual writing has consolidated a dichotomy between formal experimentation (conceptual writing), on the one hand, and innovative content (works that might fictionalize subjective difference), on the other. Depriving content-led works of their avant-garde credentials, conceptual writing ultimately works as a gatekeeper for a normative avant-garde. Almost in spite of conceptual writing, diverse and innovative poetics have been proliferating in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Partially, this development is made possible by new publishing platforms seeking out and promoting experimental writing from writers of marginal backgrounds (for example, British-run magazines 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and Queen Mob's Teahouse). Extending different poetic genealogies including New Narrative70 writing for example, these forms of experimental writing have yet to receive anything like the level of attention bestowed on conceptual writing.

Kenneth Goldsmith famously argued that there is nothing worse than "art that wallows in gaudy baubles."71 Like expression, subjectivity, [End Page 45] lyricism, referentiality, innovation, and creativity, gaudiness contravenes the logicality, depersonalization, and alleged neutrality of conceptual writing. Pink faeries and gaudy baubles72 may well come to stand for what is excluded from conceptual writing, including the potential for radical literary innovation if more marginal subjectivities were enrolled and recruited into the experimental writing process, rather than obviated. It may be true that uncreativity in conceptual writing is achieved by the author stepping back and letting the literary machine run its course, as Kenneth Goldsmith might have it. An inclusive future of avant-garde literature is another story altogether.

Isabel Waidner
University of Roehampton, UK
Isabel Waidner

Isabel Waidner is a lecturer in English and creative writing at the University of Roehampton (London, UK). She is the author of several books of experimental fiction, most recently Gaudy Bauble (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2017). Her short fiction has appeared widely, in journals including 3:AM, Berfrois, and Minor Literature[s]. She is the editor of The Arrow Maker (a journal for art and literature), and managing editor of Subjectivity (Palgrave).


I would like to thank the University of Roehampton (London, UK) for funding this research. [End Page 46]


1. Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald, Rethinking Interdisciplinarity across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2015).

2. Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached, Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

3. Felicity Callard and Constantina Papoulias, "Biology's Gift: Interrogating the Turn to Affect" Body & Society 16:1 (2010): 29–56; Ruth Leys, "The Turn to Affect: A Critique," Critical Inquiry 37:3 (Spring 2011): 434–472.

4. Sara Ahmed, "Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the 'New Materialism,'" European Journal of Women's Studies 15:1 (2008): 23–39; also Lisa Blackman, "The Challenges of New Biopsychosocialities: Hearing Voices, Trauma, Epigenetics and Mediated Perception," The Sociological Review Monographs 64:1 (2016): 256–273.

5. Melissa Littlefield and Rajani Sudan, "Editorial Statement," Configurations 20:3 (2012): 209–212.

6. Christian Bök, "The Xenotext (A Progress Report)," lecture presented at Simon Fraser University, Canada, January 25, 2013, vimeo video, 1:24:06,

7. Language poetry, or language writing, is an avant-garde poetry movement that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, and that took its name from the magazine edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews (L=A=N=G=U= A=G=E).

8. For example, Anders Lundgerg, Jonas Magnusson and Jesper Olsson, eds., "After Language Poetry: 10 Statements," OEI 7–8 (2001),

9. See Christian Bök, "After Language Poetry," in Anders Lundgerg, Jonas Magnusson and Jesper Olsson (eds.), "After Language Poetry: 10 Statements," OEI 7-8 (2001). The Canadian experimental poet Steve McCaffery terms approaches that extend literature towards other domains "parapoetic." See Steve McCaffery, The Darkness of the Present: Poetics, Anachronism and the Anomaly (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2013).

10. Christian Bök, "The Xenotext Experiment," SCRIPT-Ed 5:2 (2008): 227–231.

11. For example, Cathy Park Hong, "Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde," Lana Turner Journal of Poetry 7 (November 2013), Also Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, "foulipo," talk for CalArts Noulipo conference, October 28–29, 2005, For an earlier example, see Ellen Friedman and Miriam Fuchs, Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), in which the authors argued that while the avant-garde and feminist projects appear to share an opposition to established forms and forces, and the pursuit to modify or overturn existing modes of representation and to effect radical change, these links have not been mined for their creative and critical potential.

12. Subsequently referenced in the text as XE.

13. Killian Fox, "How Does a Poet Ensure His Work Lives Forever?," the Guardian, April 24, 2011,

14. Jamie Condliffe, "Cryptic Poetry Written in a Microbe's DNA," New Scientist, May 4, 2011,

15. Christian Bök, The Xenotext: Book 1 (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2015).

16. Rachael Buchanan, "Poet Writes Verse in Bug's Gene and Receives Reply," BBC News, April 28, 2011,; see also Christian Bök, "The Xenotext Works," Poetry Foundation, April 3, 2011,

17. Bök, "The Xenotext Experiment" (above, n. 10), p. 229.

18. Bök, "The Xenotext (A Progress Report)" (above, n. 6).

19. A cryptogram is an encoded message (or poem).

20. Buchanan, "Poet Writes Verse in Bug's Gene and Receives Reply" (above, n. 16).

21. Bök, "The Xenotext Experiment" (above, n. 10), p. 229.

22. Buchanan, "Poet Writes Verse in Bug's Gene and Receives Reply" (above, n. 16).

24. Ibid.

25. Buchanan, "Poet Writes Verse in Bug's Gene and Receives Reply" (above, n. 16).

27. Bök, Silliman's Blog (above, n. 23; emphases added).

28. Ibid.

29. Bök, "The Xenotext (A Progress Report)" (above, n. 6).

30. Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 4.

31. For an example pioneering the shift from a representational toward a performative paradigm in science and technology studies, see Ian Hacking, Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

32. Latour, Pandora's Hope (above, n. 30); also Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987).

33. Kenneth Goldsmith, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing," Open Letter: A Canadian Journal for Writing and Theory 12:7 (2005): 98–101, at p. 98.

34. Christian Bök, EUNOIA (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2001).

35. Kenneth Goldsmith, The Weather (Los Angeles: Make Now Press, 2005).

36. David Melnick, Men in Aida (1983; repr., Antwerpen: Uitgeverij, 2015).

37. Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, eds., Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010).

38. Fox, "How Does a Poet Ensure His Work Lives Forever?" (above, n. 13).

39. "Kenneth Goldsmith Reads Poetry at White House Poetry Night," YouTube video, 6:41, May 12, 2011,

40. Alison Flood, "US Poet Defends Reading of Michael Brown's Autopsy Report as Poem," the Guardian, March 17, 2015,

41. Dworkin and Goldsmith, Against Expression (above, n. 37), p. xliii.

42. Ibid.

43. Goldsmith, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing" (above, n. 33), p. 98.

44. Dworkin and Goldsmith, Against Expression (above, n. 37), p. xliii.

45. The argument has been made that many of the major preoccupations of contemporary experimental poetics are further engagements with their initial problematizations within language writing, rather than anything more radically original. For example, language writing's centralization of the nonrepresentational capacities of language, i.e., the idea that the signs of language are materiality and substance as such, rather than just refer to "things of nature" is intensified in contemporary approaches to working with heaps of language that are not meant to be read. See Charles Bernstein, "Stray Straws and Straw Men," in Content's Dream: Essays 1975–1984 (1986; repr., Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001), p. 44. Further, the impersonalization of the writing process within conceptual writing might be seen to extend language writing's precedent critiques of natural expression and personal authenticity in mainstream poetry.

46. Dworkin and Goldsmith, Against Expression (above, n. 37), p. xliii.

47. Kenneth Goldsmith "Conceptual Poetics," Poetry Foundation, June 9, 2008,

48. Sandra Harding, The Feminist Question in Science (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), links the sciences' extreme resistance to consider metatheoretical assumptions and feminist critiques to the strong positivist and empirical traditions. See also Nina Lykke and Rosi Braidotti, Between Monsters, Goddesses and Cyborgs: Feminist Confrontations with Science, Medicine and Cyberspace (London: ZED Books, 1986), p. 3.

49. For example, Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Annemarie Mol, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency & Science (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995).

50. For example, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979; repr., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986); or Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).

51. Latour, Science in Action (above, n. 32).

52. Kenneth Goldsmith, Traffic (Los Angeles: Make Now Press, 2007).

53. Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), p. 200.

54. Ibid., p. 208.

55. The transformation of Kenneth Goldsmith resembles the emergence of chemist Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) as the discoverer of microbial fermentation over the course of a series of historical experiments. See Latour, Pandora's Hope (above, n. 30).

56. Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium: FemaleMan Meets OncoMouse: Technoscience and Feminism (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 29.

57. Bök, "The Xenotext Works" (above, n. 16).

58. At the time of finalizing this article in February 2017, the link to this quote has disappeared or been removed from the Internet. Further, the two poems themselves appear to have vanished from the Internet (bar their first lines).

59. Ahmed, "Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the 'New Materialism'" (above, n. 4).

60. Evelyn Fox Keller, Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth Century Biology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

61. Ibid., p. 21.

62. Ibid.

63. Bruno Latour, "Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene" New Literary History 45:1 (2014): 1–18.

64. Bök, "The Xenotext Experiment" (above, n. 10), p. 230.

65. Carol MacCormack and Marylin Strathern, Nature, Culture and Gender (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 1.

66. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium (above, n. 56). For another example, see Sarah Franklin, "Life Itself: Global Nature and the Genetic Imaginary," in Global Nature, Global Culture, ed. Sarah Franklin, Sarah, Celia Lury, and Jackie Stacey (London: Sage, 2000), 188–227. Franklin uses the example of the Hollywood film Jurassic Park to discuss the cross-fertilisations of fact and fiction, and the art/entertainment and scientific industries, arguing that "[p]aleaontologists closely working with the producers attested to having solved certain [paleaontological] mysteries through the experimentation required to animate the dinosaurs convincingly" (p. 223).

67. Bök, "The Xenotext Experiment" (above, n. 10), p. 231.

68. Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Vanessa Place, eds., I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2012).

69. Caroline Bergvall, "The Conceptual Twist: A Foreword," in Bergvall et al., I'll Drown My Book (above, n. 68), pp. 18–22, at p. 21.

70. New Narrative is a movement and theory of queer and working-class experimental writing that emerged in San Francisco in the 1970s. See Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian, Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative Writing 1977–1997 (New York: Night-boat Books, 2017); or Gail Scott, Robert Gluck, Camille Roy, and Mary Burger, eds., Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004).

71. See Goldsmith, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing" (above, n. 33), pp. 100–101. "New materials are one of the great afflictions of contemporary writing. Some writers confuse new materials with new ideas. There is nothing worse than seeing art that wallows in gaudy baubles. The electronic writing landscape is littered with such failures."

72. See Isabel Waidner, Gaudy Bauble (Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2017).

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