Conceptual Writing, Gender, Murder, and Bob Seger

By Blake Butler

Conceptual writing is a field where, in the words of one of its biggest proponents, Kenneth Goldsmith, “the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.” Taking cues from Andy Warhol and Roland Barthes rather than big canonical ego heads we associate with “literature,” conceptualism builds more from auto-writing, assembly, curation, and filtration than anything like plot, characters, or theme. The idea of the work is the work itself, sometimes to the extent that one need not even experience the thing to understand its shape. A lot of conceptual writing, then, could be explained quite briefly, while the execution of it might be quite tedious and massive, even impossible. The author, as Barthes might say, is completely irrelevant, and therefore, dead.

The big shithole that is the internet has become the ultimate fodder for manufacturing conceptual art. There has never been more information and more ways to generate, spread, and manipulate it, while the historical aura of the artist-as-presence continually deflates, or at least becomes more and more surrounded. How true any idea is, or how good or bad it is for where we’re headed, is ultimately both a complex and irrelevant question: we’re going there regardless. Which pisses some people off, and makes some people excited.

I think I’m somewhere in between. As interesting as any idea might be, I often find myself thinking: OK, now what? Cool that you took the time to think of that novel concept, and then to actually spend time and money bringing it to life, but was it really necessary? And isn’t it somehow just as self-serving to insist you make your idea a reality, a thing that can be touched and held and considered, instead of just thinking of it and moving on? Then, other times, it’s quite refreshing. It feels good to pick up a book completely free of necessary imagination, fancy narrative, the old dead tools of storytelling and myth making. The same way a diamond skull Damien Hirst shat out to invent money is beautiful as much in context as in the simple glinting grin of death, some conceptual works force your brain in odd directions simply by existing, and the clash between the feelings is maybe even more interesting than the work itself.

Here are three looks at recent works of conceptual writing that I took some form of pleasure in.

Boycott by Vanessa Place

Boycott immediately makes an impression in that it is housed in a blood-red sheath with a slit stabbed down the middle, at once both silently violent and sexualized. The back makes the book itself look like a work of art. The title, author, medium, detail, and ‘gift of the author’ are all listed like on a placard at a museum. Place’s most recent work has stretched the area where a book ends and performance begins. She recently became the first poet to read at the Whitney Biennial, and her performance came with a content advisory notice—a public acknowledgement that language can be dangerous. Holy cow. 

Inside the red slipcover are three slim brown pamphlets, unmarked on the outside. Inside, the paper is cream-colored, with each volume containing a different frame for what will come: Introduction & Epistemology, Ontology, and Ontic. The text itself, one realizes while reading, is familiar, if at the same time slightly off. Boycott takes its body from a group of famous iconic feminist texts, though all references to the feminine gender have been masculinized. So, for instance, the essay “Is There a Feminine Genius?” has been changed to “Is There a Masculine Genius?”; “pussy envy” has been turned to “dick envy”; a reference to Hannah Arendt has been changed to Hans Arendt.

The result is something strangely funny and offsetting at the same time. The discussion of the repression of men as artists seems absurd—insane, even—as if concocted from a completely alternate history in which men have been enslaved. How ridiculous to find someone pleating on behalf of the patriarchy in such a manner: “Man must write his self: must write about men and bring men to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies…” For me, a straight white male, reading the texts as if these calls for strength were aimed at me felt at once ridiculous and embarrassing. On the other side of the fence, the arguments for men made in the voice of men had me rolling my eyes, feeling ridiculous, bored, regretful, commiserative, empathetic, violated.

Boycott takes bizarre pleasure in its deformation of gender structure by making it seem suddenly closer, grosser, than it ever has.

Seven American Deaths and Disasters by Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith has made an extended career out of the concept of the author as filter rather than creator, making a spectacle by reorganizing the minute and the mundane. His project Fidget cataloged every minor movement he made during a 13-hour period, The Weather transcribed a year’s worth of weather reports verbatim, and another recent project called for a complete hard copy printout of the entire internet. Goldsmith is a firm believer that there’s enough text already in the world, and what makes an object interesting is its curation and presentation.

Seven American Deaths and Disasters represents perhaps Goldsmith’s most historically substantial text, if still completely of the idea that no new word by an author needs to be used. In the vein of Andy Warhol’s project of the same name, Goldsmith presents seven reinterpretations of media-saturated deaths: the John F. and Robert Kennedy assassinations, John Lennon’s murder, the Challenger explosion, Columbine, 9/11, and the death of Michael Jackson. In each, Goldsmith transcribes and weaves radio reportage of the event to build a wholly different retrospective body, presenting each event in the language used to document it as it happened.

The result is surprisingly effective. Instead of the well-honed interpretations the benefit of hindsight provides, we witness the jarring events as if in real time. Reporters repeat themselves, fumble with language, and stutter, all in an attempt to parse the horror as it unfolds. Music of the time bleeds into commercials bleeds into the canned-like performance of pundits leading up to the event itself, and the chaos after. It is a uniquely affective historical catalog of time in language and seems alive in a way most other attempts at understanding atrocity could never be.

Night Moves by Stephanie Barber

Night Moves is a 75-page poem constructed entirely from YouTube comments on Bob Seger’s 1976 hit “Night Moves.” If you’ve spent any amount of time at all on YouTube, you’ll have some idea of the sort of existential range strings of words left by dozens of unrelated strangers could create. Surprisingly, though, the resulting body is more readable and multivalent than you might imagine. The anonymous and wide-open freedom, when orchestrated under independent Baltimore filmmaker Stephanie Barber’s eye, quickly culminates into a narrative built from sentimental dedications, troll-bait insults, wistful old folks angry over how music has changed, defensive teens, lurkers, hornballs, the incredulous, the sincere, and a whole other range of personalities that would only intersect with one another online.

I was pleasantly surprised at how immersive and addictive Night Moves turned out to be. Somehow—and perhaps this is part of the conceptual poetry movement as a whole—what would seem cliché or stilted if presented as someone’s original idea, takes on a whole new texture when offered as something found, the way a phone number means something different when found in a toilet stall. Dozens of little narratives and jokes and emotions rise out of the transom of people arguing over whether Seger sucks and meld into thoughts and questions about what happened to the people that we knew once, whether America sucks, how we all ended up wherever we are now. Knowing someone took the time to type out, “Pam I do not know where you are now. I think of you everytime I hear this song. I am glad my first night moves where with you. I hope you have a great life.” [sic] Followed by, “Yes, that line does, in fact, refer to perky teenage breasticles,” or even simple quasi-idiotic ungrammatical one-liners like “song kicks ass” or “FUCK BIEBER!!!!!!!!!!!!!” suddenly seem both genuine, insane, and true. Together it’s like a massive tombstone for everybody, carried in a very specific, buried nook of culture that is by default more genuine in its intent than most other kinds of words.

Previously by Blake Butler - Matthew Simmons, a One-Man Black Metal Band

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