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  • For the Newly Dead
  • Joel Felix (bio)
Notes on Conceptualisms Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman Ugly Duckling Presse 80 pages; paper, $12.00

When you reach the moment public discussion demands drawing the boundaries of what a movement is/is not, the age of its success, no matter how fleeting or far, has started. For Flarf poetry and "conceptual writing," the moment appears to be now. Kenneth Goldsmith's micro-anthology of Flarf and Conceptual work in Poetry magazine (July/August 2009) reignited questions about the vitality of "identity" and the importance of the "sincerity" of recognizable authorship in contemporary writing. "The Author" has been killed before, and for a host of reasons, but this time, according to Goldsmith, the author-function is abandoned not to subvert the replication of class relations in the bourgeois commodity of literature (viz. the Language group circa 1970s), but to capitulate to the commodities of an increasingly fractured consciousness. Works that fall under the banner of conceptual writing are wide-ranging, and many in the poetry community well aware of Flarf question if and how conceptual writing differs from Flarf, why conceptualism has arrived so late to poetry, and why it draws so much energy and attention now. Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman offer an important contribution to this conversation in Notes on Conceptualisms.

Conceptual writing works much as Marcel Duchamp's reoriented and signed urinal (Fountain [1917]) worked nearly one hundred years ago, a gesture widely proclaimed as starting "conceptual" approaches to art. The entry challenged the Society of Independent Artists' claim that all work would be accepted. Fountain arrived specifically marked to question the status of the material of art; the resonance lies not in the literal content, process of production, or artistic skill, but in the concept itself (which, in this case, had to do with challenging the notions of the material of sculpture). So too with conceptual writing: the object, accordingly, is "found language" (a codified strategy of the contemporary poetic idiom since the 1960s) presented without editorial comment—its meaning held in a liminal zone of signification, the craft of the language frequently unmediated by poetic or writerly skill.

Such gestures being commonplace in modernity, the continuing clamor over conceptual writing is surprising. Though publication of Notes on Conceptualisms predates it, Goldsmith's essay "Flarf is Dionysus. Conceptual Writing is Apollo" is perhaps the flashpoint for the discussion because he claims that changes in the world mind from technologies have effectively ended identity/sincerity as artistic procedure, and to some extent political agency, a claim that forgets such strategies existed long before "technology" (viz. "the Internet") across the disciplines of art, including poetry. Notes on Conceptualisms offers a lengthy meditation on the state of mind and mimesis under capitalism, and is content to draw sympathies to previous and existing "conceptualisms," while claiming less in regards to technology for its justification. Place and Fitterman trace an elaborate decay of signification that conceptualism participates in, if not to redemptive affect, at least to the affect of displaying the collusion of commodities within art.

Though this little blue book avows itself a collection of notes rather than full apologia, it helps create a common language for the theory of this art, even as it leaves a call for more discussion of its aesthetics. For Place and Fitterman, conceptual writing is an art of appropriation to which a process of editing, erasure, or simple decontextualization is applied to a situation of language. In their words, conceptual writing "might best be defined not by the strategies used but by the expectations of the readership or thinkership." The conceptual text "must be capable of including unintended pre- or post-textual associations" to communicate. Place and Fitterman make a compelling case for conceptualism's similarity to institutional critique of the 1980s and 1990s in the visual/performative arts. Among the institutions for "poetry and progressive writing," they list the reading, the reading series, and the "short lyric of self definition." Following this line of thinking, the critical agency of conceptual writing is located squarely on the institutions of the art itself.

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