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  • The Conceptual War Machine:Agonism and the Avant-Garde
  • Seth Perlow (bio)

When the machine takes control, we passively—and happily—acquiesce.

—Kenneth Goldsmith, “Introduction to Flarf vs. Conceptual Writing” (2009)1

Descriptions of conceptual writing often refer to its celebration of the boring and uncreative. Kenneth Goldsmith, the movement’s most prominent exponent, argues that “writing should be as effortless as washing the dishes; and as interesting.”2 Indeed, many of his books seem dull as dishwater—a transcription of one day’s traffic bulletins from the radio, for instance, or one year’s weather reports. There are good reasons for this strategy to bore. The embrace of ordinariness sets conceptualists in the company of Georges Perec, Andy Warhol, Samuel Beckett, even Christopher Smart. It also makes available a familiar stable of aesthetico-political claims about defamiliarization and the critique of daily life. But if conceptualists reject the dramatics of literary invention, favoring the mundane and uncreative, then why does so much conceptual writing mediate the grim spectacles of war, genocide, and other violence? Conceptual approaches to violence vary widely, from Charles Reznikoff’s verse collage of the Nuremberg Trial transcripts in Holocaust (1975) to Fiona Banner’s shot-by-shot descriptions of Vietnam War films in The Nam (1997).3 Even Goldsmith, having said he is “getting out of the boredom business,” offers Seven American Deaths and Disasters (2013), which transcribes news coverage of assassinations, mass shootings, and the like.4 Such books do not simply underscore the banality of evil, the dailiness of disaster. Rather, conceptual treatments of war and other violence set up a tension between the writer’s cool, uncreative procedures and topics so grim that they dare the reader not to respond viscerally. [End Page 659]

The recourse to violence highlights another major precept of conceptual writing: its disavowal of individual expression. Much as a transcript of weather forecasts conveys a supraindividual sense of the natural and technological systems in which we live, so conceptual war poetry eschews the personal frameworks through which we commonly respond to violence. Such work renders violence at a scale beyond that of lived experience. The conceptual war poet’s words often are not her own. She reworks existing discourse, operating within a social machine that produces texts as traces of the violence it does. Her writing calls attention to its own mechanicity and materiality; it figures the disciplinary character of our social systems and challenges the view of language as a vehicle for personal expression.5 My title thus refers to conceptualism as a “war machine” in part because it privileges mechanistic impersonality over the lived experience of war and other violence. Secondarily, conceptual writing operates as a war machine in a sense that calls up the latent militancy of the term avant-garde. The movement emerged after a remarkable period of slackening among American experimental writers, when the good feelings of pluralism masked a growing sense of stagnation. As suggested in the title of the best-known conceptualist anthology, Against Expression (2011), the conceptualists position their work against conventional writing. Their oppositional rhetoric has increased agonism among contemporary poets. Drawing analogies between conceptualists’ war on other styles and their thematic interest in violence, this essay begins by reading the rhetoric of agonism as it has informed conceptualism’s place in recent literary history.

I faithlessly borrow war machine from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. The term underscores the importance of technology and history in an account of conceptual writing’s agonism. For Deleuze and Guattari, the war machine is not a national military but a nomadic assemblage “exterior to the State apparatus,” which seeks to appropriate its violence.6 It opposes State authority more decisively than the conceptualists do, but conceptual writing powerfully affirms the proposition that “a book itself is a little machine.”7 Deleuze and Guattari position “the war machine-book against the State apparatus-book,” and they find it “opposed in every way to the classical or romantic book constituted by the interiority of a substance or subject”—precisely the antiexpressive stance of the conceptualists.8 The conceptual war machine agonizes its relation not to the State but to other avant-garde writing...


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