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Travis Macdonald’s Conceptual Triple Threat

Travis Macdonald (of Fact-Simile Editions) has impressively dropped three new chapbooks this spring.  All of them are great examples of what Kenneth Goldsmith might call “uncreative writing,” and two of them, BAR/koans (Erg Arts, 2011) and Sight and Sigh (Beard of Bees Press, 2011), are available as free PDFs.  Hoop Cores (The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2011) is available for £5.00.  Check them out!


Hoop Cores continues Macdonald’s play with prophecy (his latest full-length book N7ostradamus  subjects the seer’s quatrains to N+7, the famous Oulipian procedure) as he anagrammatically “translates” extremely conventional horoscopes by astrologer Jacqueline Bigar into lexically lurid and ludicrous texts (“Hoop Cores” is, of course, an anagram of “Horoscope”).  The chapbook itself (pictured above) is much wider than it is long (at 8″  x 3 3/4″) and opens up, quite neatly, like a check book.   Here is Gemini:

Yo-ho–Amputate your non-equality catcalls. Shhh! Recant your prudishly obscured pig beauty. Good. Eunuchise your psychopathic sainthood’s spluttering heat rash erections. OK. Now eloquently avenge that sensitive lechery.

On the page below, up-side down, is the following “answer”:

You have a lot to accomplish and quite quickly at that. You see another person through new eyes, especially as he or she naturally pitches in. You could be surprised by everything that occurs. Tonight: Put on your dancing shoes.

Now, whose advice would you rather follow?  The anagram, incidentally, was a popular technique of Puritan elegists who would anagram the name of whoever was being elegized.  According to Roy Harvey Pearce’s classic study The Continuity of American Poetry(1961), “The Puritan elegist might well believe that in a man’s name God had inserted evidence of his nature and his fate.  When, at his death, that nature and fate were most at issue, what could be more needful than to search out the meaning of that evidence?”  So it seems the anagram is part of a long history of prophetic hermeneutics.  Yet Hoop Cores, thank god, is far from puritanical.


BAR/koans is a series of striking visual poems that are, according to the dedication, “for the machines that will one day replace us.”  As can be gleaned from the punning title, the book presents modern day koans along with a bar code “translation.”

Design by John Moore Williams

The text, thus, is generously produced for both the human as well as the machinic reader.  In fact, generosity is the theme of the zen story from which this koan is taken:

A Zen Master lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen Master returned and found him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

Too bad the thief couldn’t have considered a red moon about to drop below a data encoded horizon.


Sight and Sigh continues Macdonald’s ambitious project of subjecting The 9/11 Commision Report  (2004), a text which Richard Posner called “an improbably literary triumph,” to various erasures.  (See Macdonald’s first book The O Mission Repo (2008) and my review of it here.)  Sight and Sigh treats Ch. 11. (which is called “Foresight–and Hindsight.”)  Here is a particularly striking page:

Macdonald is, indeed, adapting nicely to the age of the database.  According to Lev Manovich’s provocative The Language of New Media (2001), “if after the death of God (Nietzche) [sic], the end of grand Narratives of Enlightenment (Lyotard), and the arrival of the Web (Tim Berners-Lee), the world appears to us as an endless and unstructured collection of images, texts, and other data records, it is only appropriate that we will be moved to model it as a database.”  What better way to deal with such an unstructured proliferation of  texts and data than to restructure such texts through anagrams, unorthodox translation, and erasure and add them to our ever-growing database?

33 thoughts on “Travis Macdonald’s Conceptual Triple Threat

  1. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for posting about these! They all look pretty interesting; I especially like the bar code concept. (How long until someone produces a book of Android poems, meant to be scanned with a smart phone in order to be read?)

    One question, though: Why does Kenneth Goldsmith get to own this concept? While he certainly coined/popularized the term “uncreative writing,” this kind of conceptual use of found texts long predates that concept, which even a quick glance through Goldsmith’s own UBUWEB (one of the three best sites on the internet) can demonstrate.


  2. That’s a great question, Adam. Especially since conceptual writing is supposed to challenge conventional notions of authorship/ownership. And it’s true that Goldsmith has become a kind of stand-in or synecdoche for conceptualism as a whole. Goldsmith is a big personality (check out his video at the White House) and he’s done several monumental works so that gives him a high visibility if not to say celebrity.

    And thinking about these issues makes Kent Johnson’s appropriation of Goldsmith’s DAY an interesting comment on how–once you deflect interest away from the text itself and toward the idea (we don’t have to worry about the intentional fallacy anymore)–the conceptualist author gets reinscribed despite the efforts to challenge authorship.

    Vanessa Place (another conceptualist celebrity) talks about this issue regarding Caroline Bergvall’s new book:

    “Just as although Meddle English is a concerted performance of polyvocality, the only voice heard is Bergvall’s. Bergvall is the only point of entry and departure for the book; there is no foreword, no afterword, no blurb. But unlike some conceptual poetry books that refuse such interpretory apparatuses, there is Bergvall, acting as interlocutor and writer and performer. This trinity is very interesting, especially in the Shorter Chaucer Tales series, as the collages there are entirely metonymic. Thus, we are thrown back into the lap of the one who writes. As in tongue. As in mouth, as in mind. Is this a problem. In other words, this is the problem.”

    So we are, I think, quite entrenched in Goldsmith’s lap so to speak even though, as you point out, the Greeks composing centos were doing conceptual poetry avant la lettre.

    1. I’m just suspicious of Goldsmith and Place’s attempts to claim conceptual literature as their invention. It’s not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination. I myself certainly don’t feel like I’m in Goldsmith’s lap in the slightest. (Note that this is not a judgment of his or Place’s actual work.)

      1. Sure — I’m suspicious too, Adam.

        But neither Goldsmith nor Place (nor Craig Dworkin nor Rob Fitterman for that matter) really “claim” conceptual literature as their own, but all of them seem to be pretty vocal as far as advancing a certain kind of “hardcore” conceptualism.

        I touched upon some of these issue in the thread to Molly’s post about Noah Eli Gordon’s new book The Source (http://bigother.com/2011/04/27/wtf-is-the-source-wtf-is-conceptual-writing-wtf-do-i-do-with-the-source/):

        “I like how THE SOURCE represents a kind of heterodox conceptualism (I suppose that Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman would call it a ‘baroque’ or ‘hybrid’ conceptualism according to the taxonomy they establish in NOTES ON CONCEPTUALISMS) — I’d be very interested to know more about Gordon’s process of culling and fusing, of cutting and pasting. It seems like ‘pure’ conceptualism is really being privileged in the Place/Fitterman book as well as in the editorial apparatus of Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s new AGAINST EXPRESSION anthology.”

        That being said, I do think we are at the right historical moment that makes conceptualism particularly interesting and useful to think about and through things like media shift, materiality, authorship, and appropriation — some of these issues were present during conceptualism’s previous iterations and some of them weren’t. I, myself, am concerned with the plurality of (neo-)conceptualist practices that are out there that aren’t just transcription projects of the New York Times.

        Good to hear that you aren’t in Goldsmith’s lap but a lot of the contemporary poetry scene seems to be…

        1. http://bombsite.powweb.com/?p=4653

          Katherine Elaine Sanders: Can you discuss how conceptual writing began?

          Kenneth Goldsmith: It began in 1999 in Buffalo after I gave a reading there and Christian Bök and Darren Wershler drove down from Toronto to see me read. They were Canadian pataphysicists who were involved with concrete and sound poetry, while I was coming out of a text art tradition, but we all saw our respective paths as dead ends. So, we blended these obsessions to come up with a new way of writing just as the Internet was emerging. These strategies as applied to the digital writing environment made sense to us and continue to even more a decade later as the web has evolved.

          I’ve heard Vanessa Place make a similar claim—that conceptual poetry (if not all conceptual writing) started at the 2008 Conference on Conceptual Poetry that Marjorie Perloff organized in Arizona. I heard her claim that most recently just last December, when she was reading/performing at Green Lantern Gallery in Chicago. I challenged her on it; she evaded my question.

          1. That’s interesting…2008 seems rather late…does she mean that before then it [conceptual poetry] hadn’t yet crystallized into a discursive unity?

        2. My impression is that a lot of the contemporary poetry scene knows very little about the history of conceptual art. That may be harsh of me, but I think it’s true. Hence, they think Goldsmith and Place invented the stuff (something G&P seem only too happy to encourage).

          1. I have no idea what she means; I didn’t understand her claim. I asked her to clarify, and she said something along the line that conceptualism was invented or birthed at that conference. I asked her to define how conceptualism was different from conceptual poetry or conceptual art for that matter. She insisted that it was, but didn’t explain how to my satisfaction. (She also insisted that her performance than evening was pure concept and not in any sense a performance, and I didn’t understand that, either; nor did any of the people I was there with.)

            I wanted to continue speaking with her about it afterward, but due to a strange mix-up we ended up at different bars afterward.

            Since then, others have told me they’ve heard her make the same claim about that 2008 conference—that conceptualism started there, or whathaveyou. Some of those people were at the conference (which I regret having missed).

            I should add that I rather like Vanessa, personally. I just don’t understand her claim(s) here. I also read her and Robert Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms, and am not ashamed to admit that I didn’t understand a single sentence of it.


            1. Hmmmm… that seems like saying the1963 Vancouver conference birthed the New (North) American Poetry.

              I thought the typologizing work in Notes on Conceptualisms was interesting. That’s pretty much all that stuck with me. I may revisit that when I get home…

              1. The only line that stuck with me was “This kills Kosuth dead,” which made no sense to me (though I reread it many times).

                The only possible interpretation I could imagine is that the conceptual poetry of Place and Goldsmith is more indebted to Sol LeWitt (e.g., “The idea is a machine that makes the art,” from “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” 1967) than by Joseph Kosuth (e.g., “Art After Philosophy,” 1969).

                One can certainly read those seminal texts as being in conflict with one another, as they define conceptual art rather differently. (Briefly put, Sol LeWitt defines conceptual art as art that takes concept as its dominant organizing structure; Kosuth defines it as any art post-Duchamp primarily concerned with finding new materials and/or structures for art—art that expands art’s notion of what are acceptable media and forms.)

                But I also think I’m rather imagining all of that; I doubt it’s what Place and Fitterman intended.

                Here’s that quote in context:

                12b. Note when the word is the wound (the site of failure), there are two extreme forms of mimetic redress: isolate and seal the word/wound (pure conceptualism), or open and widen the word/wound (impure conceptualism and the baroque). The first is the response of the silenced sobject, the second, the screaming sobject.

                Note: this is the difference between negative and positive space.

                12c. This kills Kosuth dead.

                It’s all Greek to me.

                1. I’ll have to read my Kosuth again, but what you’re saying sounds right.

                  I do remember 12b now — though I don’t remember the analogy with negative and positive space. I’m not sure how 12c follows but I am wondering how pure conceptualism can actually cauterize the word/wound…it is just such a bold claim.

                  But my sensibility is for opening the word/wound: for something that Lorca called “duende”: “the duende,” as he says, “loves the rim of the wound.”

                  1. My primary problem is that I don’t understand what any of their terms mean. What is conceptualism(s)? What is the word/wound? What is a sobject? And so on. They define them all so broadly, and in terms of one another; it becomes meaningless.

                    I have no stomach for Theory of this sort. The words mean anything one wishes them to mean, ultimately, and it’s all very loosey-goosey. No concrete examples are ever given. No actual defensible claims are ever made.

                    I “get” poststructuralism in concept: all language refers to other language, all claims are subject to their own deconstruction. I’ve read Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Derrida, others. I understand all of that, at least in principle. There are a lot of good and useful ideas in those authors.

                    But at heart I’m much more of a formalist, much more of an analyst. I like for something to be at stake, for words to get tested against the world at some point. Endless play becomes boring after a while. The words really do just refer to other words; nothing means anything any more. It’s one damn sentence after another.

                    1. Well — I do think there is something at stake in Notes on Conceptualisms — that pure conceptualism is somehow the best possible critique of capitalism — I’m just not at all convinced by the argument.

    2. A bit more on this topic:


      A Brief Guide to Conceptual Poetry

      Conceptual poetry is an early twenty-first century literary movement, self-described by its practitioners as an act of “uncreative writing.” In conceptual poetry, appropriation is often used as a means to create new work, focused more on the initial concept rather than the final product of the poem.

      In its extreme form, such works are process-oriented and non-expressive. Some of these works include large amounts of information and are not intended to be read in their entirety. One canonical conceptual text that displays these qualities is Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, in which he reworks the September 1, 2000 issue of The New York Times, reprinting it as a 900-page book. Other writers associated with conceptual poetry include Caroline Bergvall, Christian Bök, Robert Fitterman, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Vanessa Place, among others.

      One direct predecessor of contemporary conceptual writing is Oulipo (l’Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), a writers’ group interested in experimenting with different forms of literary constraint, represented by writers like Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Raymound Queneau. One example of an Oulipean constraint is the N + 7 procedure, in which each word in an original text is replaced with the word which appears seven entries below it in a dictionary. Other key influences cited include John Cage’s and Jackson Mac Low’s chance operations, as well as the Brazilian concrete poetry movement.

      Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place outline the movement and its goals rigorously in their Notes on Conceptualisms. One basic tenet put forth in their essay is that “pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense—one does not need to ‘read’ the work as much as think about the idea of the work.” As the critic Marjorie Perloff writes in the introduction to Unoriginal Genius: “nothing quite prepared the poetry world for the claim, now being made by conceptual poets…that it is possible to write ‘poetry’ that is entirely ‘unoriginal’ and nevertheless qualifies as poetry.”

      Other important conceptual texts include Christian Bök’s Eunoia, a book in which each chapter is written using words limited to a single vowel; Caroline Bergvall’s Via in which she compiles the opening lines of forty-eight different translations of Dante’s Inferno; and Flarf poets like Nada Gordon, K. Silem Mohammad, and Gary Sullivan, who often use Google search engine results as a primary text to create poems that are intentionally “bad” or “inappropriate.”

      For more information on conceptual poetry, visit http://www.ubu.com or read Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith.

      …This is what I mean when I say “Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place are trying to own this concept (conceptual poetry, even all conceptual writing).” And I think it’s wrong, and reductive, and dishonest. (To be fair, I don’t know who wrote the above, but look around; it’s easy to find lots of stuff along this line, and Goldsmith and Place are encouraging it.)

      Conceptual writing has been around for decades. It’s at least as old as conceptual art, if not longer. Just off the top of my head, here are ten works I’d argue are works of conceptual literature, even if they aren’t commonly considered as such:
      La Monte Young’s Compositions 1960 and 1961
      John Cage’s Silence (1961)
      Daniel Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance (1962)
      Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit (1964)
      Robert Barry’s Inert Gas series (1969)
      Hollis Frampton’s Zorn’s Lemma (1970)
      Allan Kaprow’s Self-Service (A Happening) (1967)
      Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975).
      Jenny Holzer’s Truisms series (1977–present)
      the posters Tehching Hsieh made to document his one-year pieces (1978–99)

      One can find even better examples, too. And the Oulipo is more than just “a predecessor”; many Oulipian projects are conceptual works. (They may not be “hardcore conceptual” if one subscribes to Sol LeWitt’s definition of conceptual art…but LeWitt’s is not the only definition!)

      Someday soon, I’m going to write a whole series of posts on this topic. If not a whole book.


      1. Raymond Roussel’s proceduralism has to be considered conceptual too.

        I think the Oulipian François Le Lionnais can be considered “hardcore” in that he relegates the actual writing of the texts to the realm of what he (hilariously) calls “applied Oulipo.”

        Well, a book is surely needed — Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius is interesting but, I think, unsatisfying in the end.

        It’s a little off topic but I think Marcus Boon’s recent In Praise of Copying is very strong…a free PDF is, not surprisingly, available:


        I think it’s the book that Kiarostami’s male character in Certified Copy wished he could write…

        I wonder if it is fair to say that they (Goldsmith, Place, et al) “own” “pure conceptualism.”

        1. Roussel, yes, definitely.

          I don’t think anyone owns anything. But even if people could, then, no, I don’t think G&P own “pure conceptualism.” For one thing, pure’s a tricky word. For a second—I wouldn’t call Place’s work “pure” anything (meaning, I don’t see a single idea underlying her various works). Goldsmith’s work is “purer” in that regard (he copies)—but even there, he sorts the work. And even if all he did was copy—he still actually does the copying; he doesn’t just leave it as an idea, unmade (as many, many conceptual artists have done).

          Goldsmith is heavily indebted to Sol LeWitt (his “thinkership in lieu of readership” line is pure LeWitt, or at least pure Lawrence Weiner, after LeWitt). LeWitt made descriptions of wall drawings that people could or could not make; he argued it didn’t really matter. So, in other words, LeWitt was an artist who made sheets of paper with instructions on them. He was a writer. (Indeed, some have argued that conceptual art is what happens when the visual arts take texts as their primary materials.) This happened nearly fifty years ago.

          Goldsmith and Place are applying these ideas in a different time and place, and using different materials and opportunities. That is certainly something. But to own a concept, especially a concept as big as concept—well, there is nothing new under the sun. All that I really see happening is the that some facets of the US small press community is finally discovering the use of concept as dominant, something that several other media have been doing for decades. That doesn’t devalue the work, but it does devalue anyone’s claims of having “created” anything.

          1. You’re right that Place has done a lot of different works but don’t you think she is moving toward “purity”? Her Statement of Facts seems very Goldsmithian to me…

            Did you follow the 2005 “noulipo” conference and the debate surrounding Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s “foulipo” piece?

            Goldsmith made an interesting response:

            “Stephanie Young & Juliana Spahr’s ‘Foulipo’ is awash in nostalgia, the type of which is sweeping younger artists these days. It’s a nostalgia for the 60s and 70s avant-garde. While it’s not clear exactly which avant-garde everyone is nostalgic for (it seems to vary depending on age group, geography, gender and agenda), it’s safe to say that there is a hunger and interest for what happened in the arts from, say, the mid-50s through the early 80s.”

            (This is from http://www.drunkenboat.com/db8/oulipo/feature-oulipo/essays/goldsmith/response.html.)

            I wonder how he would counter your point that current conceptual writing is also “awash in nostalgia” (as is feminist body-based art and constraint based neo-oulipianism) since, as you say, LeWitt’s conceptualism “happened nearly fifty years ago.” There seems to be an irony here — though looking up at that interview you quote, it seems like the easy answer is “the internet.” Right? It seems like an easy answer for a lot of things.

            Kenny G: “So, we blended these obsessions to come up with a new way of writing just as the Internet was emerging. These strategies as applied to the digital writing environment made sense to us and continue to even more a decade later as the web has evolved.”

            1. I think I’d need to look at all those texts more carefully before I could judge them. Nostalgia is a very tricky thing. What isn’t nostalgic these days? And what does that mean any more? It used to mean literally a desire to return home—to Switzerland. What home to people want to return home to today? And did they ever even know that home? That word’s present meaning confuses me, if it even means anything coherent.

              But I also think, from a certain point of view, the culture hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years. Look at 1961. It’s so familiar to us, and in a way that 1911 wasn’t to 1961. So while some people think that things are changing more and more, faster and faster, in some ways I think things aren’t changing at all. The 60s feel very “present” to me (although of course I never saw them, so I know only the 60s that the culture has reported to me).

              I’m very happy to be talking about all of these things with you, Michael. I’ll redouble my efforts to gather my thoughts about conceptual art, and get some of those posts up. Thanks also for the suggestions of things to look at. I’ll look forward to continuing this conversation with you!

              1. I think you’re right that the 60s feel present in some way but I wonder if this sense of “presentness” is precisely due to nostalgia…but now I am typing faster than I can properly think.

                Yes — I, too, am happy about discussing these things, Adam — and thanks for your thoughts and ideas…until soon!

                1. I wrote a little bit about nostalgia here. It’s probably time for me to revisit it.

                  A comparison: 1910 fashion vs. 1960 fashion

                  For whatever reason, the fashions of the 1960s have survived into the present with a force that the fashions of the 1910s didn’t survive into the 1960s. (That’s an ugly sentence, but.) And I don’t think it’s simply a matter of “return” (i.e., nostalgia)—some things simply have never gone away: e.g., blue jeans and T-shirts. The rise of the corporation may have something to do with that: they seek to keep things as steady and homogenous—as financially predictable—as possible (what Adorno called “sameness”). It’s also surely the case that modern recording technology has preserved the more recent past into the present: the 1960s are accessible to us in a way the 1910s weren’t to the 1960s (or even aren’t to us now).

                  But I must think more on this subject…

                  1. 1910 is an interesting date: “On or about December, 1910, human character changed” (V. Woolf).

                    I’ll check out your links…

  3. To bring Macdonald back into the picture — what I like about his poetics is that he seems to treat conceptualism as a kind of ethical practice of everyday life.

    Here’s the beginning of an essay he wrote about erasure that appeared in Jacket:

    “The poetry of erasure is taking place all around us. Underneath the pavement, behind newspaper headlines, on paste-layered billboards and graffiti-laden walls, our communal landscape is continuously peeling away and papering over itself. Its very surface is a living thing in flux between the dueling processes of decay and renewal, driven in the name of progress to adapt to the shifting contextual demands of culture or be replaced, removed, re-imagined. While this process can, at times, be artificially postponed, nothing escapes its effects forever. This world demands of its denizens a constant and vigilant revision of form.”


      1. Surely… I just added a little comment to that thread.

        Alex C calls Travis “A dude in Colorado” so I hope he see this post too — Travis actually re-located to Philly recently.

  4. http://www.alextheberge.com/2011/05/23/worlds-last-known-handwritten-newspaper/

    The ‘Musalman’ is probably the last handwritten newspaper in the world. It has been published and read every day in South India’s Chennai since 1927 in almost the same form. In the shadow of the Wallajah Mosque in Chennai, a team of six die hard workers still put out this hand-penned paper. Four of them are katibs — writers dedicated to the ancient art of Urdu calligraphy. It’s tough for the die-hard artists of Urdu calligraphy. But the story we tell here is not just of their desperation and despair. The fact is, at the office of ‘The Musalman’, the oldest Urdu daily in India, no one has ever quit. They work till they pass on. This is the story we tell.

    Take that, Kenneth Goldsmith!

    1. Maybe Goldsmith can leave Penn to join the staff at The Musalman. No OCR allowed!

  5. I’m afraid I’ve come to this comment stream rather late and, due to the tremendous ground covered above, would be hard pressed to address every thoughtful point with the detailed response it deserves. I would however, like to offer the notion:

    Conceptualism is dead.

    That said, I mean no disrespect to any of its practitioners named above, whose work, for the most part, I truly admire and enjoy…Instead, I mean only to suggest that, due to the very nature of the form, conceptualism exists solely in the minds of its practitioners. As Matthew Timmons pointed out in his part of a panel discussion on flarf/conceptual poetry 2 years ago at the AWP in Denver (and I’m paraphrasing here): “I’ve written a book [Credit] that can barely be said to exist, at a length of 800 pages and with a price tag of $299, the readership for this text is almost completely theoretical.”

    Perhaps this is true of all texts from an authorial standpoint: maybe the idea of an audience is just that (an idea) and nothing more. For my own part, however, I will continue to labor under the assumption that the words I write, compose and compile will somehow find their way (today, tomorrow or someday in the distant future) to one or more human ears. Whether or not the resulting sonic, poetic and/or quasi-logical qualities of these still theoretical texts is appreciated, “the reader” as such still seems to me a welcome and worthwhile illusion. As an avid reader myself, I guess it comes down to the fact that I have little to know interest in a book that can’t, won’t or shouldn’t be “read.” Can such an object even be considered a book? I’m not sure.

    On the other hand, I am extremely interested in redefining the role of the reader as an active participant in every text, a feat that many (if not all) conceptual writers achieve to great effect…Reading back over these two seemingly opposed statements, it appears that I have created something of an internally conflicted quandary…

    All destinations being the same, I think my concerns can be narrowed down to the routes employed by different groups of writers. The way out of these woods depends on what I perceive to be a critical distinction among some of the schools and poets listed in the comment stream above:

    Conceptualism is dead. Long live Proceduralism!

    I find it somewhat difficult to equate the efforts of the Oulipo to the “new” field of conceptualism. While certain branches of this tree may trace their roots back to the efforts of Perec, Matthews, Lescure and Co., in my mind, there is a very different intention at work behind each. Whereas conceptualism and Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” tend to focus their energies on an end-product in an attempt to engage “the reader” in thought ABOUT the book, the Oulipo and it’s new practitioners (let’s call them Proceduralists for lack of a better term) are intent on carrying the reader THROUGH the very process of each composition. This latter approach, for me at least, is a living, breathing process in which the final text and the experience of that text is co-created between writer(s) and reader(s) and stands in stark contrast to the theoretical idea-of-literature put forth by the former.

    1. Hi Travis,

      Thanks for your comment. My main question, though, remains: “What is conceptualism?” I’ve never found an explanation as to what that term actually means (and why it is something different than “conceptual literature.”

      Here’s how I view it: conceptual literature takes concept as its dominant organizing conceit (I’m using “dominant” here the way Roman Jakobson did: the aspect of the work that organizes the work, and that can’t be removed from the work).

      Conceptual art has been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, but it became popular in Western art-making about 50 years ago (mainly due to the influences of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage). Since that time, numerous artists and writers have been making conceptual works.

      I would argue that many, if not most, Oulipo artworks are in fact conceptual. The idea of choosing some non-popular constraint that will organize the entire work and which cannot be sacrificed or violated has a rather conceptual feel to it. If the end result is worth reading, that’s a testament to the charm and ability of the author, but it doesn’t dismiss the fact that most people will refer to the project—will think of it—as “that book that was written without using the letter ‘e'” (to pick one example). That said, I think of this as a soft boundary, and not some absolute edge of some private country.

      (There is a great deal of precedent for audiences being asked, and being able, to appreciate the end result of conceptual artworks. Sol LeWitt, after all, did in fact have people execute his wall drawings, many of which are quite lovely. And John Cage asked that people actually perform 4’33”, not just think about it. To my mind, the “think about it” vs. “actually experience it” tension is one of the central tensions in conceptual art, not evidence of concept’s presence or absence, one way or the other.)

      So, if you buy all (or any) of this, how is “conceptualism” something different? And how could it die? Artists will always have the option of making such work. If it’s “overdone” now, it’s reasonable to believe that, at some point in the future, it will be novel to make such works again, and artists will do it.


      1. Adam-

        First let me freely admit that I am no scholar. On this or any other subject. I don’t know that I could adequately define Conceptualism in the context of Place/Fitterman’s Notes. Gawd knows I could certainly stand to take another couple of runs at/through that text. My initial feeling is that, as the title itself suggests, it is never to be fully defined in any concretely satisfying sense of the word (definition, that is).

        For the purposes of my own argument, however, I would attribute to the term “Conceptualism” an overarching structure that strives to encompass and contain the fields of conceptual literature and conceptual art, or at least their most recent incarnations over, say, the last half-century.

        I accept and agree with your assertion of “conceptual literature [as that which] takes concept as its dominant organizing conceit and would venture to place it under the umbrella of above.

        However, in response to your argument that “most Oulipo artworks are in fact conceptual,” I would respectfully disagree on the matter of ‘most’ and offer the notion that the Oulipian distinction between the Synthetic and the Analytic is, at its core, a distinction between concept and procedure. Yes, it would be difficult to separate the idea or of Perec’s A Void from its execution, but can the N+7 technique, for instance, truly be adequately examined under this same dominant organizing conceit? I would venture that this form, like many others proposed, appropriated and practiced by members of The Oulipo is governed by the dominant organizing conceit of procedure. [See Michael’s note below on “applied Oulipo”.]

        So, maybe that’s the short and easy surface answer to the difference between conceptual and procedural. But it hardly feels definitive…Let me try to come at the problem another way:

        In answer to your very valid point regarding the works of LeWitt and Cage, I would argue that, at the very moment these concepts were performed, they were not called into being but rather ceased to exist as conceptual. In each of these cases, the original art/work existed in a potential space that, once realized, became something wholly other.

        So my assertion that “Conceptualism is dead” is not a stop order or a call for all practitioners of conceptual art and literature to cease and desist due to overuse, but rather an attempt at the distinction from proceduralism that I am trying, even now, to formulate…I see conceptual art/literature as existing alongside, if not independent from, its enactment or execution whereas the procedural artwork is characterized and entirely dependent on the process of creation that it sets forth.

        Therefore, perhaps the distinction between conceptual and procedural cannot be clearly reduced to a matter of “thought” vs. “experience,” but is rather a subtle gradation of approach between those two methods of perception: where the conceptual asks us to experience the idea behind a given work through its phenomenal representation, the procedural invites us to experience the active application of its core concept.

        I’ve written and re-written that last sentence several times now…I feel as if I’m scratching at the edge of this thought-scab that isn’t quite ready to lift and reveal the wound of entry, so I will rest my fingernails for now and welcome your further thoughts on the matter!


  6. I’m so happy to have your comments here, Travis! Thanks for checking in. Perhaps I should have titled my post “Travis Macdonald’s Procedural Triple Threat.”

    And I am now going back to HOOP CORES and am tempted to do a reading of “CANCER” with your comments in mind — especially of this sentence:

    “Meanwhile I, morbidly overfed, am sorrow’s conceptual trench-foot snarl.”

    Perhaps you have a “Proceduralist Manifesto” in the works?

    I’m not quite sure that “conceptualism and Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘uncreative writing’ tend to focus their energies on an end-product in an attempt to engage ‘the reader’ in thought ABOUT the book.” The “pure conceptualism” that Place and Fitterman advocate in NOTES ON CONCEPTUALISMS seems to privilege the concept over the end-product (which almost becomes epiphenomenal), and Goldsmith seems to want to shift the idea of a readership altogether toward a “thinkership.” You do address this, after all, in that you put “the reader” in quotes and you highlight the fact that the thinker thinking about the book is paramount — but it seems to me that the end-product really gets devalued…and this is certainly not the case in The New Proceduralism as you are defining it.

    I’m quite interested in this idea as it intersects very much with my current poetic practice and would love to hear more. I like the idea that the New Proceduralists “are intent on carrying the reader THROUGH the very process of each composition.” This, of course, makes the linguistic texture of the poetry much more important than it is in conceptualism. I’m wondering if the difference is between what Roland Barthes calls “the writerly” or “scriptible” and what the conceptualists might call “the thinkerly.”

    1. Michael – No proceduralist manifesto in the works just yet, though this conversation has given me some food for thought in that direction so maybe sometime soon…after my thoughts on the matter have more fully coalesced.

      Your point regarding the Place/Fitterman privilege of concept over end product is well taken. It would, perhaps, have been more accurate of me to assert that: with Conceptualism, the concept IS the end product. The “writing” itself ends up, as you suggest, a sort of incidental, ancillary (but nevertheless necessary) proof. I guess the difference for me again comes back to that theoretical reader: Has anyone actually READ “Day” cover to cover? Does that matter? Certainly not to Mr. Goldsmith.

      [Yes, I think the Barthes/Goldsmith distinction between writerly and thinkerly is critical here…]

      I envision the principal difference, albeit subtle, between the new Proceduralism and its more intellectually established older cousin is simply that the procedure (read process), while it defines and informs (and is, in turn, defined and informed by) the end-product, depends entirely on the intermediate execution of it’s own basic act or equation rather than the theoretical results. The reader (or thinker) then, is engaged not at the level of overall concept but at the level of interactive procession: how does the concept actually function at a micro versus a macro level? This, to me, demands something more closely akin to the original act of reading…or it least my concept of that act.

      For these reasons, I would go so far as to steal certain contemporary works commonly perceived as Conceptual and place them behind my newly wrought and poorly fortified barrier (Eunoia, The Sonnograms, A Void, The Great Archivist’s / Cloudy Quotient…the list goes on.)

      Perhaps I can address and defend this thesis more fully in response to Mr. Jameson’s latest comment above…I will do my best, at any rate.

  7. I like the attention to “the level of interactive procession” — that’s pretty much where I’m at with my poetics now. It seems like within Oulipian thought the constraint itself takes precedence. In the thread above, I mentioned to Adam that François Le Lionnais once mocked the actual producing of texts as “applied Oulipo” and Jacques Roubaud thought that “the ideal constraint gives rise to one text only” — it seems like the New Proceduralism, as you are describing it, puts focus on the “intermediate execution” and isn’t so worried about multiplicity.

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