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  • Presentism and Periodization in Language Writing, Conceptual Art, and Conceptual Writing
  • Barrett Watten (bio)

In this essay, I contrast three movements of contemporary art practice involving language—Language writing, conceptual art, and the recently emerged movement of conceptual writing—in terms of how each formally and historically encodes concepts of presentism and periodization. While each of these movements constructs a version of "the present," or sees itself as an art of the "present time," in formally and historically specific ways, in each presentism and periodization are differently implicated in the work's formal construction. While periodization as a concept is well understood (after Michel Foucault, Fredric Jameson, and Hayden White), "presentism" is a recently activated and contested term, reflecting specific debates in cultural, gender, and digital studies.1 In this discussion, presentism will stand for an interpretive practice in which object and interpreter are not historically framed, even if temporal indices of present time are invoked (or not); periodization provides historical framing for an interpretive practice. Presentism thus connects to nonnarrative representation, in the sense that both rely on the suspension or refusal of narrative, while periodization requires narrative frames. (I propose to include the often-heard usage of presentism as "the interpretation of past events in terms of present concerns" within the more general sense of interpretation that does not distinguish between past and present.) [End Page 125]

In Language writing, I am interested in how nonnarrative forms as presentist are embedded in periodizing historical narratives, a complementary perspective to how nonnarrative forms may themselves be historical. As combining both the objective and subjective historicity of nonnarrative, conceptual artist On Kawara's date paintings are a crux for my discussion of the historicity of nonnarrative (or a presentism of history), given their referential shifting between the time of production (the day on which they were made) and subsequent historical frames for their represented dates as historical. On Kawara's citation of historical contexts for these dated works, newspaper clippings placed "under erasure"—not exhibited with the date paintings but stored in boxes fabricated individually for them—become formal registers of the historical time frames in which they are made. Following my consideration of On Kawara's conceptualism, I discuss the positioning of the absolute present as the "date," within a series of dates in conceptual writing (after White's discussion of the narrative forms of the annal and chronicle in Content of the Form). In the recent emergence of literary conceptualism, I see a historical invocation of the language strategies of conceptual art that paradoxically provides a narrative frame for conceptual writing's claim to be purely an art of the present, to represent nothing but the New, at the intersection of the historically prior practices of Language writing and conceptual art. Finally, I place all three nonnarrative genres at the intersection of aesthetic form, time, and history, renewing an earlier call for a historical explanation of practices of non-narration.2

Writing the Present

Today is Saturday, December 18, 2010. As I begin work on the revised version of my article, it is now 10:10 AM. I began writing the first draft of this essay on Sunday, October 18, 2009 and first presented it in public on Saturday, October 24, 2009 at 8:45 AM. The present version will circulate to the reader on Wednesday, December 22, 2010; it will be revised on receipt of readers' comments on Saturday, January 15, 2011; it will be published in print and digital form on day/month/date/year; and you are reading it on day/month/date/year. The relation of the actual date on which these sentences were written, spoken, or read to the dates as [End Page 126] represented here will vary on a sliding scale from identical to yet-to-be-determined, while the frame of reference that determines that relationship will shift continually. The index of the date is in this sense a referential shifter.3

On the day I began work on this essay—Sunday, October 18, 2009—I had just returned from presenting three lecture/seminars in France on The Grand Piano, a multi-authored, ten-volume, collective writing project. On that day...


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