With thanks to Cassie Seltman, Nellie Barber, Herman Rappaport, and Genji Amino for reading and discussing. And thanks to Gabe Rubin for talking me off the ledge.
The following has been excerpted from the print edition of Notes on Post-conceptual Poetry.
What is Post-conceptual poetry?
Post-conceptual poetry is nothing more than a term that means generationally following, and reacting to Conceptual poetry, often in dialogue with Conceptual poetry. Some even call Post-conceptual poetry, ‘second-generation Conceptual poetry,’ as Kenneth Goldsmith or Rob Fitterman taught many Post-conceptual poets directly or indirectly.1 Post-conceptual poetry by virtue of following Conceptual poetry also follows postmodernism (which at least by virtue of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry can be thought to contain Language poetry) and is therefore post-postmodernism.
However, this essay will argue, contra Jameson, that postmodernism is better thought to refer the empty simulacrum art of the 80s and that Language poetry is more accurately post-structuralist.
Isn’t conceptual poetry Post-conceptualism?
Yes. Conceptual poetry by virtue of following 80s postmodern art (Pictures generation: Cindy Sherman, Sherri Levine) is post-postmodern; by virtue of following 70s post-structuralist poetry (Language poetry) is post-poststructuralist; by virtue of following 60s conceptualism (fluxus, minimalism) is Post-conceptualism. Of course, as one can tell from its billing, Conceptual poetry is not merely attempting to follow conceptual art (and therefore to align with all that is Post-conceptualism, which can include 80s postmodern art and 70s poststructuralist poetry) but also to repeat it and has successfully created some rather purely conceptual procedures. It has also aligned itself quite strongly with 80s postmodernism and the empty simulacrum. Both the 80s and 60s can be marked by their aesthetics of empty and vapid indeterminacy—with that emptiness being valorized for being Zen (Marcus Boon on Kenneth Goldsmith or John Cage on John Cage) or for being ironic, funny, and reflexive of the culture at large (Baudrillardian celebrations of 80s art found in the art journal October). Language poetry, deconstruction, historicism, and post-structuralism, all coming of age in the 70s, attempted a rigorous negative dialectical poetics of the sometimes mechanistic, sometimes arbitrary, but always playful, fancy/imaginary (as opposed to a fixed God given monarchical classical old fashioned Coleridgean Imagination). Poetic fancy was largely abandoned by the project of Conceptual poetry (although some of its mechanistic and arbitrary features were appropriated), as well as by the overarching attempts to follow up postmodernism with a post-postmodernism that redoubles the emptiness of postmodernism and revokes the insights of rigorous post-structuralism by returning to structuralism.
What is Post-conceptual poetry, again?
Post-conceptual poetry by virtue of following Conceptual poetry can be seen as inaugurating a new tide in the post-postmodernisms (such as Conceptual poetry) that came of age in the 90s and early 00s. Its practitioners, born (on average) in the mid-80s, are part of a larger trend within post-postmodernism to bridge affect, queerness, ego, lyric, and self-conscious narcissism within the inherited procedural structures of the ‘network’ and the ‘concept.’ They are therefore part of a larger turn to Queer Structuralism, that aligns the dry empty hierarchies of structuralism (that post-postmodernism has unanimously returned to) with the abjection that the term ‘queer’ allegedly refers to.
Who are the Post-conceptual poets?
Some Post-conceptual poets are Sophia Le Fraga, Andrew Durbin, J. Gordon Faylor, Trisha Low, Josef Kaplan, Joey Yearous-algozin, Holly Melgard, Danny Snelson, Steve McLaughlin, and Steve Zultanski. Of course, each has a relation to other aesthetic lineages. Some clear examples being: Fraga’s relation to performance art, Low’s relation to the Chris Krauss/Kathy Acker memoir, and Durbin’s relation to camp and New York School poetry.
The famous cousins of Post-conceptual poetry are Lady Gaga (b. 1986) and Ryan Trecartin (born 1981). Their work responds to similar pressures in their given fields. I like to call Post-conceptual poets and their colleagues in other fields queer-conceptualists and/or Queer Structuralists because of their desire for particular micro communities/queerness combined with a fear of abandoning the jargon of conceptual art as an apparatus of the social network and the academy.2 There are some other ties, Goldsmith (born 1960) has promoted Trecartin numerous times and Gaga shares Goldsmith’s worship of Warhol. Gaga has been an important buzzword for queer theory vis-à-vis Judith Jack Halberstam’s “Gaga Feminism” and also for LA Post-conceptual poet Kate Durbin’s blog Gaga Stigmata. Finally, Trecartin has been discussed alongside Goldsmith in Artforum and in Art in America.
Can the Post-conceptual poet do anything new?
The Post-conceptual poet can assert their authorship by claiming that the “author is dead” (a la perverse postmodernism/poststructuralism: Language poetry and Flarf) thereby slipping into the schizopoetic vulgar muck of the Internet.
The Post-conceptual poet can assert their authorship by claiming that the “text is dead” (a la post-poststructuralism/post-postmodernism: Conceptual poetry) thereby deferring to conceptual, algorithmic, appropriative mastery over the muck of schitzopoetic textual flows.
The Post-conceptual poet can assert their authorship by deferring to the confessional/affective/lyrical (traditional, Romantic poetics) or the mechanical/conceptual or, better yet, they can mix both together (as a conceptual strategy or as a heartfelt impulse or some hybrid of both).3
None of that is new. However, the Post-conceptual poet can do one new thing and declare the “death of work” (unprecedented by its immediate poetic lineage, though common with the madness poetics of Artaud and esteemed by Foucault and Deleuze). This is symmetrical to the ‘death of the reader,’ which means here, the death of the close, analytic, or aesthetically discriminate reader. This would mean falling into the messy muck of libidinal flows (or the Internet or ‘whatever’) without leaving a trace of authorship and without giving in to those dominant modes of leftist discourse (that mark the academy, the art world, and politics), which require the artwork to pave the way for didactic redemption, and require that art be boxed into the framings of queer theory or speculative materialism4 or poststructuralism or affect studies or Badiousian-Zizekian, etc.5 That is to say, that the Post-conceptual poet could make works that are not afforded privilege of ‘example’ in the seemingly endless war between ‘neoliberal versus subversive’ or ‘subjective/affective versus mechanical’ or the various attempts to wield both subject and object (micro and macro) together vis-à-vis universalized particulars like the term ‘queer’ (which has recourse both to a conceptual universalized apparatus and a particular, affective, minority).
That is to say, if Post-conceptual poetry can de-cathect from the strategies of didactic redemption and/or didactic counter-redemption that mark the marketing strategies that have created the canons of conceptualism and Post-conceptualism, Language poetry and Conceptual poetry, in the first place. Perhaps, then, what will occur is a madness that signals not the disappearance of the author [Language poetry], or the disappearance of the text [Conceptual poetry], but the final disappearance of work itself.
Alas: no more work for the consumption of others, for the didactic pronouncement of amoral or moral causes, for the inevitable redemption of the market. But also an end to the predetermined paths meant to demonstrate madness and perform ‘no work’ but have therefore become work, examples, and formulas (such as the tired formula: an excess of work=no work, which has been put to very good use by Conceptual poetry).
Unfortunately, the ‘death of work’ (or ‘the death of the reader’) seems as likely to occur in full as the death of the author or the death of the text ever did. That is because of the need in Post-conceptual poetry (as was true of Language poetry, and Conceptual poetry) for redemption, branding, and formulaic notions of politics, differential marks, hierarchies, and didactic declarations. However, “the death of work” does not need to occur ‘in full’ to remain paradigmatic of the constellation of practices known as ‘Post-conceptual poetry.’
Has Post-conceptual poetry been redeemed and valorized yet?
Yes. The assertion of didactic modes of redemption for the newly Post-conceptual poets (as well as many other artists who are of the same generation, born after 1985) are budding, primarily in and through discourses around the visual arts in publications that attempt to sell artworks by making a claim to a work’s radicality. These notes will pull apart some of the more flagrant attempts that have been made to use pre-existing stale discourses (such as queer theory, affect studies, and Marxist theory) to promote the work of these artists and poets. But it will also look at the ways in which Conceptual poetry and Language poetry have been either redeemed or condemned by critics (as well as the poet-practitioners themselves).6
Are these notes a work of Post-conceptual poetry?
As might become quite obvious, these notes enact a kind of push-pull between pathetic confession, ironic self-criticality, advanced complicity, enraged hostility, information surplus, gossip, and longing (for an end to work) that is characteristic of Post-conceptual poetry (and youth). Still, I do try here to somewhat maturely take interest in history (over and against theoretical sophistry and my own likes and dislikes), an interest has been seriously absent in many of the attempts, by many critics and poets to deal with issues similar to those discussed in these notes. It is a forgetting of history that perhaps will allow these critics and poets to take pride of place in the canon formations that will mark this moment. And that is sooo neoliberal or is it subversive? I can’t tell anymore….
1)Everyone can be a poet but only one person gets to amalgamate all that poetry and present it to the larger institutional world of art, endowing it with value. This time, that person is Kenneth Goldsmith (b. 1961), working with Hans-Ulrich Obrist.
2)Mary Kelly made it so that we can raise a baby in a museum. Now Goldsmith has enabled us to stage our postpostpostrevolts in the museum. And forge tons of minor, counter-canons under the auspices of a singular private-collection-cum-web-domain (ubuweb.com).
3)These notes are being amalgamated as data for Goldsmith and Obrist for their world-wide-web-renowned event “Poetry Will Be Made By All.” These notes will be published online at poetrywillbemadebyall.ch and printed at the LUMA/Westbau exhibition space within Löwenbräukunst in Zurich, Switzerland.i This is one of 1,000 books published under the condition that the author be born after 1989 and asked by one of the appointed advisors to the project. These notes will then tour the globe and be collected by those collectors who are interested in the work of Goldsmith and/or Obrist.
4)I am filled with hope that this counter-canon formation will position me as the next amalgamator of data and that I will one day be king of the canon. However, since I deride curating anyway, at the very least, I hope this will position me as a critic who can discern whatever new talents will emerge from the muck of Internet art, and follow in the wake of Goldsmith and associates, who have allegedly outstayed their welcome.
5)If you are having trouble coming up with new ideas just repeat your old ideas but Skype them in to Zurich. Their value will multiply.
6)Even better say this: “If you are having trouble coming up with new ideas just repeat your old ideas but Skype them in to Zurich. Their value will multiply.” But say it while Skyping in to Zurich.
7)I hope that these notes will be Skyped to Zurich.
8)We are all masters of tumblr and facebook but only some of us are good enough at using tumblr and facebook that we can receive institutional recognition and be written up by Claire Bishop (b. 1971) or Kareem Estefan. Digital art is a huge mess where everyone is a star and everything is disseminated. But only one or two leaders disseminate things (information, and press releases, if not goods) well enough that they can also receive art world recognition. Thus Bishop’s Artforum essay “Digital Divide,” praises Goldsmith (Conceptual poetry), Cory Arcangel (straight net aesthetics), and Ryan Trecartin (gay net aesthetics).ii All of which she finds hallmarks of her position, a return to critique and negation over and against happy relational aesthetics (her favorite point of reference being Santiago Sierra).
9)With the Internet anything can be brought into the poem, anyone can become a star, and the dictates of fashion (receiving likes) replace the critic’s authority. And yet the crisis that all of these critics (from the older rock star to Hal Foster) seem to be bemoaning when they cannot figure out who determines talent on the Internet is really a crisis that at the same time is the most wonderful thing ever for the critic. Because the greater the mise en abyme the more important is the role of the critic to make order. And therefore, most critics writing in glossy magazines bemoaning the mise en abyme of fashion are purposefully negligent of the fashionable luxury they gain from this mise en abyme: the critics’ (and curators’) importance is redoubled! And most, of course, take the chance when bemoaning this mise en abyme to emphasize those few artists they feel are exempt from this charge. [This may be one of my approaches in these notes.]
10)Estefan praises Trecartin in Art in America for complicating hardcore conceptualism a la Goldsmithiii (though, more recently, Estefan has written that he finds in Trecartin’s new work a naïve acceptance of cyborg post-humanism troublingly akin to neoliberal solutionismiv). But Estefan’s essays, appearing as they do in the pages of hip and corporate magazines, mimic the very neoliberalism he ascribes, as a slap in the face, to some of the artists he judges. Therefore, it can seem that when it was more in vogue for him to do so, he put forward Trecartin as a Post-conceptual hero and when not, not. Trecartin, like Goldsmith or Lady Gaga – or anyone else – can be used as a cipher for critics to claim “she is neoliberal” or “she is subversive” … ad nauseum. See the endless blog wars about Beyonce or Miley. But I would be blatantly parodying my own argument by saying “it is the blogposts and the hip art critical discourses that are really neoliberal.” No, I’d rather not appeal to morality. I’ll just say: criticism of the kind offered by Estefan or Jeffrey Nealon or Christopher Glazek (not to mention your average queer blogger) is not intellectually rigorous enough and is severely limited by only being able to look at work that plays within the irony/affect divide. Such criticism is deathly afraid of work that slips beyond this overdetermined critical playing field. Moreover, rather than having any objective way to assess what is or is not neoliberal, such criticism relies on what is liked or disliked, usually letting opportunistic fancy lead the way. Not that there’s anything wrong with opportunistic fancy! But let’s be honest: the will to power has not vanished in queer hip cool art historical discourse and there is not, and will never be, some transparent inclusive queer friendly criteria for art criticism.
11)Estefan’s original appraisal of gay male artist Trecartin in Art in America was that he showed a way to loosen the constricting straps of conceptualism a la Goldsmith. But to be fair: Goldsmith’s work is “born” Post-conceptual (coming decades after the height of Conceptualism) and does show interest in affect and queerness. His own involvement in the catalog for the Institute for Contemporary Art’s 2010 show Queer Voice, which included Trecartin’s work, attests to this; not to mention his interest in the gay male artist Andy Warhol (b. 1928),7 who was a genius at combining dull structuralist mechanic techniques with affective bodily queer subcultural trippy punk romantic colorfulness. Nonetheless, the critical trend is to discuss Goldsmith’s work as a kind of white straight man’s conceptualism, while Vanessa Place (b. 1968) or Trecartin are viewed as taking the conceptual straight jacket and subverting it by dealing with queer themes.
12)The problem is not that there is too much muck out there but that there isn’t enough, not enough muck to overwhelm the function of the critic. Or to make the critic admit that at least a major part of his job is to employ opportunistic sophistry.
13)So many daring critics have attempted to rescue messy post-war poetics from its mise en abyme. Think of what happened after Fredric Jameson (b. 1934) described Language poetry as empty neoliberal drivel.8 George Hartley redeemed the work for being meaningful both politically and aesthetically. Barrett Watten’s O’Hara performs ideological critique, Michael Davidson’s Spicer performs ideological critique, Keston Sutherland’s Wieners performs ideological critique, Jeffrey Robinson’s post-romantic poets (whom he defends against the Coleridgian complaint of their being mechanistically fanciful) perform ideological critique.
14)Then also, there is the attempt to redeem works for their affective ordinariness: Adam Fitzgerald’s Charles Bernstein, Jeffrey Nealon’s Kenneth Goldsmith, and Andrew Ross’s Frank O’Hara.
15)The danger is plunging into the abyss of complicity (as Johanna Drucker has detailed); an abyss that Post-conceptual poetry flirts with to the point of, at times, nearing its own extinction. My father, a founding Language poet Charles Bernstein (b. 1950) wrote: “My humor is so dark you can’t see it” but this line was nonetheless ‘seen,’ (and became one of a group of his quotes that are used as a refrain for so many academic book intros). Post-conceptual poetry potentiates the possibility of understanding this joke but not telling it. Of fading fully ‘back to black.’
16)Here is a sharp Marxist argument that should be made repeatedly: “We all can put out our music for free but Madonna or Gaga or Beyonce will be the top-selling touring artist. Private property is a thing of the past. Except for houses and money. Those must remain distributed in the same old way.” This critique can and should be leveled against the rhetoric of Conceptual poetry (founded in the early 2000s) and Gaga feminism (founded in the 2010s) and queer theory (founded in 1990).
17)Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive. Beyonce is neoliberal. Beyonce is subversive.
18)When attempting to resolve whether or not Beyonce is neoliberal or subversive, bloggers usually deny the way in which they valorize their own powers of discriminatory judgment. The more specific, non-moral, critical judgments of a critic sans identity politics like Marjorie Perloff (b. 1931) never will forget its own discriminatory judgment. The judgments are therefore lampooned as being elitist.
19)So, perhaps in fear of looking like an elitist asshole, many contemporary curators and professors instruct and critique as if their own fancies did not come into play. This only redoubles their elitism and makes them more difficult to call out. On the left, there is a moral judgment; on the right, there is a golden standard of craft.
20)Kenneth Goldsmith, above all else, valorizes a certain craft and technique. His critics, above all else, valorize moral judgment. Therefore he appeases left and right.
21)Then there are those who attempt explicitly to refuse moral judgment or even the dictates of craft and technique. Instead, you ought to rely on master discourses and formulas that outwit the dumb ego that produces art and critique. This is what Slavoj Zizek (b. 1949) does (via a kind of theoretical Stalinism) and what Vanessa Place does (via a kind of Zizekianism).
22)Sharing on FaceBook, curating an art show, and writing a hip dissertation all operate in a similar way: Find a private, specific, marginal bubble (a disturbing punctum) and bring it to the public marketplace.
23)Kids these days: tumblring new styles, bandcamping new genres, wikipediaing new paradigms. Goldsmith is a kid, opening up as many tabs as he possibly can. Kids these days are able to utopianize the dystopia, rephotograph their multiple tabs, and compete with each other as to who can more uniquely capture the punctum of our trivial existence. (Don’t worry. It’s just a game.)
24)Obama is a kid these days. He can use the binary framework of like/dislike to his best advantage and get the most followers and the most likes/comments/views.
25)Facebook was built to stalk girls and now from a youngest age we make ourselves stalkable, turning our children’s baby books into pornos; then they grow up to turn their teenage traumas into stylish books, their everyday hobby/life into a work resume.
26)These notes are partially about Post-conceptualism broadly construed: art that follows both the postmodern visual art conceptualism of the 60s and the poststructuralist poetics of Language poetry in 1970s. This includes the visual artists of the Picture Show generation in the 1980s and the Conceptual poetry of the early 2000s (both of which returned to many of the tenets of conceptual art).
Post-conceptualism is one of many post-postmodern discourses (in general, those who are post-postmodernism and anti-postmodernism are also anti-poststructuralism and post-poststructuralism).
Note here that Language poetry is poststructuralist but it is not really “postmodern,” as is it is commonly used to refer to the empty, meaningless, schizophrenic signifiers of 80s visual art, Baudrillard’s simulacrum, and MTV. However, this is how Jameson viewed the work of Language poet Bob Perelman. And indeed, it is as likely to be thrown out with arguments against postmodernism offered by those like Zizek and Badiou who fault postmodernism and post-structuralism alike for its splintered identity categories, its emphasis on ordinary language, seductive ideological framings, complicity, and linguistic determinism. Language poetry certainly shared some characteristics with 80s postmodernism. However, it had much more in common with the poststructuralist theories of libidinal flow popularized in the late 60s and early 70s (as part of, among other things, the sexual revolution). In this way, if it was “postmodern” it was a kind of shadow side of postmodernism. It can also be seen as part of a cross-section of events (happening in the Bay area and downtown New York culture) that included feminist and gay avant-garde and proto-punk performance art (the 70s is well illustrated by Jay Sanders’ Rituals of Rented Island at the Whitney that included work by Richard Foreman and Jack Smith). This world, was much different from what would come about under Reagnomics and the Pictures Generation in the art world’s 1980s, which can more properly be called “postmodern” and often conjoins itself to the hip with Baudrillard’s simulacrum theory. As Semiotexte editor Sylvere Lotringer has written, of his own part in the 70s (his notorious “Schizo-culture” conference and journal): It “was about living in New York, in which I saw French theory’s wildest extrapolations realized, or at least mine. Being in New York until the early 1980s was like living in theory, madness included.”v Sanders elaborates, “Lotringer began to imagine a materialist semiotics that rejected language altogether and instead sought a language of objects themselves. Turning fortuitously to the visual arts, he immersed himself in the performances of Jack Smith, Foreman, Sherman, and others seeing this radical potential imbedded implicitly in their work….”vi
28)If poststructuralist political radicalism climaxed in the mid-70s, (while aesthetically only coming into Academic, and de-politicized, prominence in the 80s), then post-postmodernism reflect the various attempts to follow the act. Post-postmodern discourses (Goldsmith, Geoffrey Harman, Katerina Kolozova, Francois Laruelle, Lee Edelman, Claire Bishop, Jose Munoz) have attempted to move beyond negative dialectical materialism,9 phenomenological humanism, being-in-language, radical skepticism/relativism, and splintered micro-politics in order to enact a discourse centered around universalized particulars such as the term ‘queer’ or the counterhegemonic Marxist ‘revolutionary.’ The universalizing of particulars has meant that the micro political emphasis on ‘affect’ has been projected into a larger field of ‘affect studies’ and communal attachments full of jargon and didactic structure that are praised for granting access to ‘heterogenous peoples.’ Post-postmodernism, particularly its attempt to universalize ‘difference,’ is largely influenced by Zizek and Alain Badiou (b. 1937), in their use of Lacan’s matheme as a way to approach the real without having to go through the splintered identities of post-structuralism. But post-postmodernism is split down the middle: with some following the Baudrillard of the 1980s who describe the disappearance of the real altogether (Conceptual poetry) and others following François Laruelle (affect studies, queer theory, speculative materialism) who insist on a non-discursive real, however they do not employ visionary romantic tactics to realize this real but rely instead on jargon and proscriptive formalism. Nonetheless, both end up bringing something real, yet discursively encoded, to the table. Deadpans like Goldsmith and Baudrillard are obsessed with punctums that will appeal to the human spectator, just as much as queer theory is. Conceptual poetry has little to do with the hippie spirit that marks conceptual art of the 60s, as chronicled by Lucy Lippard or made famous by the term Fluxus.10 Its origins are in the 1980s art world.
29)In distinction to Conceptual poetry, which aligns happily with Baudrillard’s deadpan disappearance of the real, Post-conceptual poetry attempts to explicitly bring affect and emotion and ego back into the empty networking structures that govern us. For many, this is a resounding relief.
30)Post-postmodernism seems on paper to be about giving oneself over totally to the machine and the symbolic (Conceptual poetry) and the object and the real (affect studies, speculative materialism) with no human self-reflexive phenomenological imaginary. Nonetheless, the emerging double “post” remains haunted by the same human value-oriented patriarchal, hierarchical scaffoldings as its predecessors. Yes, it makes sense that people are eager to leave behind the subjective correlationist phenomenological lyrical neurotic egotistical fantastical imaginary post-modernism of the late 60s and early 70s. But it is becoming alarmingly clear that none of the discourses that followed postmodernism have been able to abandon the ego. In fact, they merely redouble the naïvely (unself-conscious) human will to power. As usual, this will to power is consistently redoubled at any point where it is seems to have disappeared. So, it appears that post-postmodernism is all about merging with the machine or the real with only a glimmer of irony/framing/aestheticism. And it appears that post-postmodernism has fulfilled the death drive of dark and negative dialectical thought by completely erasing the manifest image of humans. But, how can we forget that it is always egos performing that erasure for the ‘impartial’ critic who it tries to woo?
31)Some Post-conceptual poets might admit the melancholic impotence of the desire to abandon the human in favor of the real (affect) and the symbolic (technology) and give up this escapism mid-concept (whereas most conceptualists never admit their pathos). Nonetheless, the Post-conceptual poet must keep attempting to add exhaustion to the content of the work. If one actually abandons the machinery of Facebook and Twitter and networking and queeronormative identities one is cut out of the archive altogether. That is to say, only happy dandys (they can be exhausted, queer, or crippled as long as they are ‘happy’) can and do succeed in this economy.
Be trans and anorexic and dying of terminal illness and bullied, just keep on posting about it and you’ll be accepted!! Heaven is a place on earth. Don’t wait for the judgment of God. Find and embrace the judgment of your queer community.
32)Queer-conceptualism, broadly construed, should be a clean mathematical process akin to adding excess algorithmically to structure, nothing should appear to be done by hand or by breath because the value here comes from the robot that seems like a human (the human that seems like a robot as a motif has been exhausted by postmodernism).
33)Just being weird and messy does not ensure canonization as post-conceptual poetry unless it directly pushed against conceptual parameters.
34)The Post-conceptual poet cliché: make frivolous mention of social media, celebrities, art world institutions, or offer a jargoned feminist/queer theory critique of those institutions, and hope to get validation merely from the use of buzz words. Or, in a slightly more self-critical variation on the theme: make fun of yourself for being limited by these buzz words and discourses but refuse to take a stab at doing anything else.
35)In 1975 a turn against the splintered discourses of Freudian-Marxist poststructuralism (epitomized by the open economy of Bataille and the sexual politics of Marcuse) brought in a period of sober restoration led by those who wanted to amend the schizopoetic into a tidy healing discourse (such as Deleuze; who became the go-to French theorist of the 1990s) or those who wanted to valorize universalized counterhegemonic activities (the resolutely anti-postmodern Badiou and later Zizek, both following the formalistic Lacan, not to mention Mao and Hegel, rather than the chaotic nonsensical Lacan) thus inspiring those who preferred a universalized particular identity in the 90s (queer theory). This war was waged against the splintered identities (determined wholly by their linguistic signification) of chaotic poststructuralism. Conceptual poetry follows up on this move, finding ways to patch together (through appropriation) the various messy slave discourses that were inaugurated by postmodern poetics.
36)Those who grew up to be Post-conceptual poets are those who missed the protopunk anarchy of the 70s and the revolutionary politics of the late 60s. Rather they were born in the 80s, during the deadening Reagonomic period in art (the Picture show generation and later in Britain, the YBAs) in which previously political postmodern tactics were frozen into monumentally valorized works of blank irony with global celebrities at the wheel. Then they came of age during the 90s, a time when riot girl feminism and Deleuze (minor literature spawning micropolitcs and microcinemas) and Judith Butler’s subversion and queer theory and Zizek’s Hegelian Marxism became prominent. And then they started working in the 00s: finding ways to combine the empty symbolic art of the 80s with the ‘subversive’ affective cyborg-utopian feminist tactics of the 90s. This Post-conceptual combo meant letting go of the splintered punk and separatist politics found in the late 60s, within hippie culture, but also within lower east side art culture. Suddenly, in the 00s punk seemed as romantically insular and individualistically hedonistic and complacent as modernism and romanticism looked to the radicals of the 1970s. Nonetheless, it was compelling and felt good to be punk! So in order to maintain this ‘good feeling’ punk became permissible only through and after neurotic apologies and academic dissertations and ironic quotations. And in order to maintain the political potential of punk, its movements were reformulated into a universally applicable (rather than individualistic) party politics for-all, epitomized by the universalized particular and academically ‘counterhegemonic’ emblem marked by the word ‘queer.’
Queerness created the possibility of rallying around a shared ‘disgust’ and ‘apathy’ and ‘alienation’ and ‘negativity,’ thereby erasing the particular untranslatable difficulties of the individual’s personal visionary experience of displeasure and easing us into a kind of harmonized ‘punkness’-without-hostility. The void of ‘no future’ that had led in the past to suicidal visionary anarchy became an academic and refined communitarian identity through the maneuverings of queer professors such as Lee Edelman (an early born, 1951, Queer Structuralist/queer conceptualist). But this can be seen also in non-philosophers such as the feminist non-philosopher Katerina Kolozova (b. 1969), who is pissed that postmodernism/poststructuralism (particularly the kind represented by Butler’s 1990 classic Gender Trouble) has meant that we never have access to the real in and of itself but only get it through the bars of language’s prison house (like Language poetry: Charles Bernstein’s “Only the imaginary is real”). Nonetheless, Kolozova claims that using the obtuse and scientific jargon of non-philosophy (invented by Laruelle) can finally grant us access to a real ‘real,’ not just a real couched in irony: killing off the tyranny of negative dialectical skepticism that has never given us bodies that matter or an outside world that we could trust as real. Thus, Kolozova has found a way to wed non-philosophy, feminism, and queer theory together in a post-postmodern (post-poststructuralist) queer structuralism/queer conceptualism (a re-structuralism) that allows the real (here marked QUEER) to be found through objective, scientific criteria. And this has not gone unnoticed. Her star is only beginning to rise and a recently a prominent queer theory journal has devoted an issue to non-philosophy, at least in part because of her endeavors.
This sort of access to the ‘real’ would have been impossible in most major works of post-structuralism or postmodernism (from Jacques Derrida and Bruce Andrews to Baudrillard to Sherrie Levine). One would never ‘stupidly’ give in to symbolic communitarian identities. And even post-structuralist postmodernism (particularly in its Jewish varieties) recognized a certain possibility for a future disclosure of the real: still, the real never really came. Yet this same blank, unfulfilled void, which caused so much negative, agnostic ‘waiting’ in postmodernism has since been filled by joyous notions of political cathexis and fidelity: Badiou (it must be noted that Badiou was simultaneously writing alongside the postmodernists but was an active critic) being the post-postmodernist most heavily committed to the idea of structurally determined ‘indeterminate’ hyper-contingent events. Yet the speculative materialists, particularly Quentin Meillasoux (1967) also privilege this hyper-chaotic contingency, as being a place for radical rupture (basically, a site for God). As do the Queer Structuralists and non-philosophers.11 Fidelity to this grand event and all the Hegelian determinism that it implies is the genesis of these new identities. However, this has much in common with Hegelian structuralism in general, look at October journal where, as per the title, subjectivity (or at least, recognized subjectivity) is determined by some sort of grandiose fidelity to the Russian October revolutions. Vanessa Place, a brilliant re-structuralist, maneuvers the splintered discourses of the ‘slave’ and the ‘victim’ and turns them into monumental, cool artworks.
37)Place would be a Post-conceptual poet if she did not so belligerently cross out the imaginary, the ego, ideological framings, material-play, etc. But she is able to do quite a bit within conceptualism. She is able to bring an oozingly affective, unabbreviated real (the testimonies of rape victims) through a materialistic ego-based creative space (the imaginary) that is nonetheless crossed-out (in favor of appropriation, allegory, irony) and into the symbolic order (that is cool, avant-garde, self-conscious, cutting edge, masterful poetry). The difference between her and Post-conceptual poets will be that the Post-conceptual poet will not necessarily cross out the imaginary [just as flarf never did]. Therefore, there might be in the work of some Post-conceptual poets a return to negative dialectical playing with framings and confession. It should also be noted that Place was once a Post-conceptual poet (her novel La Medusa reflects this) but then became ‘conceptual,’ at least, in part, because Conceptual poetry has a more reliably distinguishable canon.
38)Post-postmodernists, broadly conceived, ignore the ego. They would rather key in on affective residues (the analytic third that exists between analyst and analysand) rather than the analysand’s ego and their own will-to-power in co-creating the framing mechanisms that pass as ‘neutral’ within a given discursive framework.
39)Place is very good at framing and traditional authorship (see her astute and convincing book The Guilt Project) and is merely trolling by shoving all her court cases at us. This type of trolling is so common in our culture that to many it seems unremarkable. However, my response is coming from someone born in 1992 and perhaps my boredom with trolling is generational. Yes, it might make one question what is a book and what isn’t a book, etc. But what’s so funny about her project is that for all her claims of presenting us the thing without moral markers, she nonetheless is overtly didactic about the apolitical moral position that she chooses. Maybe the problem with party politics isn’t that they are ‘moral’ but that they are didactic and lack vision. And if so, then her amorality shares in that same problem.
40)Place praises Marjorie Perloff for recognizing poetry as a thing and not a moral instrument, despite the fact that Perloff has long been a huge advocate of ruthless discrimination, radical collage, and radical artifice, as opposed to the sort of amoral thing that Place gives us. Nonetheless, when the amoral thing becomes chewed up and spit out as art mastery, as occurs in Place’s case, then it can properly claim the aesthetic attention of a historical and formalist critic like Perloff.
41)The art dubbed ‘institutional critique’ was always good for pointing out the exclusive limitations that governed the museum and its relations to collectors. But institutional critique had to remain a polished craft that had esteemed practitioners. Now that everyone can be an artist and big museums look towards the Internet and small galleries and microcinemas, there is a sudden free-for-all and, as Hal Foster has lamented, a loss of consensus. People who put forward institutional critique are embarrassed. Benjamin Buchloh (b. 1941) writes, “A new generation of artists claimed the legacies of Duchamp and Warhol without so much as an atom of the transgressive and subversive intelligence that these two putative forbears had historically initiated.” And so the October journalists must seek out a new genius, who will show hostility towards the mise en abyme of the galleries without erasing the tenets of dry institutional critique. So Buchloh can turn to Andrea Fraser (b. 1965). Younger queerer critics might, for similar reasons, turn to K8 Hardy (b. 1977): an artist who demands to be seen as a quasi-Post-conceptual poet because she does not show the heroic mastery of ideological structures that someone like Fraser (or Place, for that matter) does. Yet Fraser and Place will endure, in part due to a need to preserve an aristocratic elite of institutional critique in art, even though both are equally interested in parodying and lobotomizing this mode as they are in repeating it.
42)To argue on discriminatory aesthetic grounds with Perloff’s appraisal, it is perhaps altogether mistaken to attribute so much power of invention to Goldsmith. In poetry, perhaps, he has had the most radical newness (in responding to the drivel of Post-language poetics). However, in the context of the visual arts (and here is where he cashes in), where Warhol is already a mandatory example, he looks like just another proponent of the repetition of Warhol’s formal tactics [a pop Duchampianism that has also already been absorbed into pop culture]. Just as, in poetry, Place’s inventions seem quite new and profound (in responding to the drivel of male-dominated cool Conceptual poetry). However, in the visual arts, the deadpan quasi-feminist repetitions of Warhol (in which a female artist repeats his strategies but intrudes upon them with redoubled Lacan inflected affect) have been done to death (and, sorry Place, but female artists doing Warhol to death, while knowing that what they are doing has been done to death, has also already been done to death).
43)I am not saying that Goldsmith merely copies Warhol’s formal method of appropriation. More importantly, he also convinces us (as Warhol did) of a lurking lovely genius behind the façade. This is more than many of the amateurish Warhol copycats do. Nonetheless, in this, he has missed out what could have been his crucial invention: that is, to throw away the need to convince us of the ‘lovely genius.’ That would be the great risk! In all, Goldsmith has proven to be too conservative and too respectful of Warhol’s legacy. Doing so, has won him many advantages: it has allowed him entrance into pop culture and the art world, since Warhol’s legacy is still sanctimoniously worshipped. And therefore, he has gained quite a bit (of attention) but lost quite a bit (of invention).
44)So how have we gone about choosing our next geniuses (and this will be most crucial for the Post-conceptual poets)?
—Firstly: make this free-for-all of net art a part of consistent art historical lineage (so that the last room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s After Warhol show featured Corey Arcangel and Ryan Trecartin].
—Secondly: start websites like riverofthe.net or ubuweb that can mimic the mode of Tube sites that gives us an overflowing of materials that, like Tube sites, generate interest and income only to those at the very top.
—Thirdly: turn to old-school critics like Benjamin Buchloh or Marjorie Perloff who will lambaste the mediocrity of contemporary democratic culture and therefore point to you as being a cut above the rest or somehow ‘in on the joke’ of the mise an abyme in the same way that earlier avant-gardeists had been.
45)Benjamin Buchloh: “Artists can continue to ‘subvert’ norms (emphasizing the latest trend) but are still mirroring the powers they are subservient too.”vii Duh. I mean, its fairly obvious, from any theoretically acute perspective that things like James Franco’s participation in the art world are not COMMUNIST or even aesthetically radical, nor is there anything particularly groundbreaking when a young gay dandy like Ryan McNamara predictably says: “performance is inherently subversive in that the presenting institution cannot guarantee what’s gonna happen.” At least, Goldsmith admits that saying things like “everyone is a poet” is not about being subversive: that being subversive died out with the 70s. His project is not political. It is funny, though. Anyway, how is Buchloh (a key art world taste-maker employed by Artforum and other publications to make it easier for buyers and museums to know what is ‘good’) any less mimetic of capitalism?
46)Nonetheless people like Bishop, who writes with all the swish of someone proposing politically and aesthetically radical (and even ‘negative’!!) perspectives, praise Goldsmith, in utter sincerity, as being of uber-importance in challenging visual art. The fact that his poetry can be valorized for ‘challenging visual art’ in an editorial in Artforum points to a paradox that can at the very least be mentioned by someone as astute as Bishop. Isn’t the poetry that is illegible or unnoticed by the visual art world, that cannot be accepted in galleries and museums, posing more of a challenge to the stale hierarchies of visual art? I guess, to be a poet who gets a mention in Artforum, you can’t just make work that poses a challenge to the hierarchies of visual art. It has to also participate in them. Damn.
47)Christopher Glazek on Trecartin in n+1 (the hip, youthful, more ‘oppositional’ version of the New Yorker) “Any Ever depicts a universe with women in charge and gays as assistants. It is an exciting, glorious place and a sneak preview of what’s to come. Art bros, beware: the future does not belong to you. Your generosity will not be exalted; your hijinks will not be adored; your slickness will not be humored. Grab a personality and buy a jumpsuit—the world is about to get more interesting.”viii
48)Re Glazek: It’s fine if you want to overthrow patriarchal hierarchies with a new feminist hierarchy where gay men are ‘paid assistants.’ But, at least, point to the fact that, Trecartin is, in so many ways, the sole artist credited for his work. His collaborators (both tweens and women) are not in charge. He is quite obviously a rich white male. And the article praising him is being written by a posh white male. I don’t mean to suggest that white males making millions from art is a problem that needs to be addressed in every piece of art criticism about rich white male artists. But to ignore this fact in an article that is written under the guise of some sort of queer theory political agenda is bad journalism, bad politics, bad aesthetics, and bad scholarship. Which is to say, (and this is probably the only thing you need to take from these notes), that for all the emphasis on ‘critique’ and ‘contextual awareness,’ in the last instance, most who participate in critical discourses and art discourses persistently refuse to check their own context.
49)Re: Artfrum.com. Recent critiques of the mise an abyme of Internet art proposed in this vaguely counter-artworld artworld imprint have maintained a glossy fixation on the industry that produces interest in what it critiques. Moreover, these critics delight in their own powers of discrimination and do not take into account the ways in which it is the valorization of the critic’s discrimination that leads to the sort of artworld 1 percenters they loathe. The suggestion offered – it’s time we look at things that aren’t dominant in the art world and online – is quaint and on many levels opposed to the interest of the critic who wants to have a legacy within those systems. Moreover, for the most part, the art critic wants to simply replace what is the most successful with something more marginal. And since artists rise to the top rather quickly, revolts happen very quickly. J. Varadi’s Artforum article ends by suggesting those on the sidelines need to do more work.ix This point is acritical and ahistorical and typical of the blindsided indulgence of artworld calls to arms. It feels foolish to have to say it, but, of course, those on the sidelines do plenty of work; it is terribly hard to break into the artworld and not everyone wants to (or should). Does the fact that someone did not ‘make it’ in the artworld say something about their merit as an artist or the amount of ‘labor’ that they put into their art? After dragging the major trends of postconceptualism through the dirt (namely Gaga and millionaire Internet artists), Varadi nonetheless valorizes a select few, who ‘do it better,’ on the way to saying that some ‘other’ undefined constellation of artistic practices should now take dominance because we are ‘bored’ by the ones currently in power. If you can start to get used to this formula, then you’re on your way to be an artworld critic.
50)Excuse me for offering, for just a moment, a ‘closer reading’ of Varadi’s piece.
Firstly, let’s question the originality of the critique: to actually bother writing in print that Internet art and networking art is tedious is to pose a critique that is at this point more tedious than the artwork it condemns.
Secondly, let’s question the location of the critique: on a sly and flashy tumblr called artfrum.tumblr.com and that he then makes several exceptions without really explaining why (for instance he says that the work of Andrew Durbin is an exception; I think Andrew’s work is very good and worth critical reflection, but I would have a hard time how understanding how or in what ways it is distinct from the other work Varadi is talking about, and Varadi does not make the effort to elaborate this distinction, which leads me to believe this might be an opportunistic reference. After all, Varadi’s accompanying pictures tell a different story, a picture of Durbin drinking a Four Loko while reading is reduced anyway via its juxtaposition, it is simply one of many pictures of art that he refers to as cultural detritus. In the text, it seems the only way that Durbin is hailed to be ‘different than the rest’ is because he has “updated the Baudelairian dandy.” This comparison is either ill informed or poorly crafted bullshit. Baudelaire’s dandy was a reaction against the tides of democratic culture, and quite clearly was marked tonally by depersonalized introversion. On the contrary, what is compelling about Durbin is his enthusiastic extroverted complicity with democratic and popular culture. Moreover, this is what is compelling about the very figures of pop culture themselves that Varadi condemns, who, as has been documented for years, most famously through and around issues of postmodernism, Madonna, and feminism, are aware of the problematics of complicity and are not the empty-headed twerps like Varadi makes them out to be).
Thirdly, let’s question the authenticity of his critique. Those who truly disdain Internet art as much as Varadi claims would not so eagerly fold their critique up into the nexus of the very same discourse and modes of transmission of that artwork, without at least making mention of the fact that he was doing that. Moreover, has he talked to any artists not interested in being in the artworld or in the poetry world, about things like Internet art? There you will find a critique that is far more incisive because, for all its paranoid disinterestedness, it has a certain intelligence here lacking. None of them merely say “I don’t like that form of art,” they say “I don’t like that whole discourse, that whole scene, I don’t like those people, I don’t like that structure, that debate, that hierarchy, that way of living life.” Therefore, they don’t even want to debate things, they don’t want to inflame the scandal, they don’t trust the eruption of another form, even if it would benefit them or their friends.
Lastly, let’s question Varadi’s intentions in making this critique, a critique that so obviously inflames the very sort of art discourses he claims to be ‘critiquing’? I urge you to view the piece and to decide for yourself why he is making this critique. I honestly have no idea. I also urge you to track down other articles that condemn Internet art and count how many make an exception for a particular Internet artist. Then try and figure out who that Internet artist is in relation to that critic (a friend, a student, a powerful person, an academic colleague, an already canonized figure?). And really try and find out, do these people not like Internet art or do they just want their art and/or journalism to get more attention? Moreover, do these people really not like the apparatus of the artworld or the poetry world, or do they like it but just want more status in it? It’s tricky but it’s fun, you should go do it! You can also do this for the romantics, futurists, Language poets, or whatever art clique you’d like to investigate! Do it with this piece! I would make a list of ones I’ve found recently but that would be difficult to do without severely alienating myself from those critics, who quite honestly, I would love to hear mention my name in the conversation of Internet art, in a bad way or good way. Would you like to hear your name mentioned?
51)Queer Structuralists/queer conceptualists, born after 1960, have turned fully against post-structuralism and the determinism of the language prison-house in favor of a return to structuralism: ie, structures as something that can be objectively determined with the human rational subject having some sort of ability to do this determining between what is queer and normative, for instance. This has in common Badiou’s belligerent ontological turn against Kant’s epistemologies and the later linguistic turn of Wittgenstein, in favor of establishing universal and meaningful (rather than chaotic and splintered postmodern) post-postmodern criteria. Here, the structuralists of October art criticism (who wrote at the time of poststructuralism but eschewed anything that resembled its tenets like Language poetry) also come into play, for also rejecting the notion of splintered linguistic relativism, in favor of abstract reasoning and charts, ie, structural knowledge that, as long as it is being carried out by the most advanced specialists in the field, will always be the most correct and the most avant-garde. Queer Structuralists follow the mathematically-oriented structuralist impetus in Barthes and Lacan rather than the post-structuralist linguistically-oriented impetus (the impetus to lock us in to our egos and our authorship is eschewed in favor of a notion of subversive efficient political agents who are always in the right, because they can humbly look past there own egos through empathy and curiosity towards the great outdoors, the messy inventive sophistry of Barthes and Lacan is also eschewed in favor of a recapitulation of their precisely formalized sides).12
52)In contemporary art criticism it seems that the artwork has found a way to traverse the will-to-power, to undo it, or break out of it. Case in point, critic Jeffrey Nealon praises Goldsmith for delivering the real qua real, dispensing with the need for an imaginative interpretive or even critical response. After all it is in the interpretive responses of the past that patriarchal hierarchies had been formed! Nonetheless, here he has forged his own neutral transparent cool/queer hierarchy (as do most Queer Structuralists, as do many post-postmodernists, as do many Post-conceptualists, as do some Post-conceptual poets). This will be news to nobody who understands that the will-to-power does not vanish and that attempts to make it look vanished only redouble its effect. Canons are always created in those moments where it seems that this time the canon will be more justifiably produced than ever before. Many of us understand this and are happy to use this knowledge to support our Machiavellian opportunistic hedonism (a la Place). Others of us will work desperately to find a way out of the forgetful impasse that forges the canon. Foucault, for instance, worked tirelessly against the canon formations of history. And yet, Foucault has been consumed through those formations. Through this queeripedia consumption Foucault has been turned into an icon for the David-Halperin-induced gay techno-utopian sincerity-without-hierarchies that Gaga Feminists far and wide seem to believe is a reality.
53)A didactic and dogmatic representational system has been made out of the slippery pataphysical negative dialectics, and a pokerfaced essential identity has been born. The non-philosopher, post-popstar, after-artist, post-poet has hoped to throw out the need for poiesis. With videogame ease, just find the real, and the symbolic will follow, naturally. Skepticism of both the real and the symbolic has been given up in favor of an affirmative embrace of both. Despite the fact that we live in an age where people are skeptical of the symbolic order of white patriarchs, and even disgusted by this, we have failed to account for the ways in which that disgust has become a way of communally identifying, that has forged a new queer symbolic order, an unquestioned and invisible ideology, restricting our singular will in order that it meets the standards of institutional visibility.
54)Within the 70s in avant-garde poetry, some poets, such as Steve McCaffrey (b. 1947), drew on the open Bataillean libidinal excessive economy but were nonetheless canonized in a restricted refined literary economy by critics like Marjorie Perloff. (Perloff’s influential early book, The Poetics of Indeterminacy, seems to advocate the value of a libidinal semiotics, though she subsequently moved away from this view in favor of aesthetic hierarchy and calculated ironic efforts that demonstrate great skill.) It has also been argued that many of the 70s avant-garde poets themselves fostered such a restricted economy, through their own academic affiliations and cliquishness (particularly criticized on this count is my father Charles Bernstein who taught at UBuffalo then at UPenn). More accurately, it can be said that these poets participated in a rigorous and negative dialectical [swerving between closed and open economies] mode of close reading that can be found in other 70s radical movements such as deconstruction and historicism.
Amy King, Eileen Myles (1949), Christopher Nealon, and others have made an effort to point towards the repression of affect in the dominant strand of postmodern avant-garde poetry in the 70s. In contrast, as Matvei Yankelevich has suggested, there are a slew of poets working in and across a range of practices not just within dogmatic formation of affect versus irony. It is from this disdain for the Perloffian canon that a new canon will emerge and the Post-conceptual poets will find their home. But this can only happen if we forget our own will-to-power and condemn the will-to-power of the people that came before us. And the best way to do this is to attack Perloff, Bernstein, and Goldsmith.
55)One way to protest hierarchies is by claiming to have found a cool, punk, or authentic way to get outside of them. People are rightfully upset about certain hierarchies that signify exclusive oppression but rather than acknowledging their own will-to-power in protesting these hierarchies, they hide behind a cool queer neutrality. Eileen Myles’ response to Perloff falls prey to this mode of response.
56)Updating the paradoxical exchanges between open versus closed economies, and irony versus affect, Goldsmith’s work has found itself as a contemporary juncture for these competing value systems to wage war. Perloff sees Goldsmith as an exemplar of avant differentiation from the muck of democratic culture. Nealon sees Goldsmith as disappearing those hierarchical marks of differentiation and giving us a slice of ordinary life. Then there are those, who simply who don’t like the work, and see it as doing nothing whatsoever: not making or disappearing hierarchies but simply staying put in the mise en abyme of mediocrity and privilege. One of the reasons Goldsmith’s work has been able to find unprecedented popularity (leaving aside its large numbers of detractors) is that it appeals to two incredibly different value systems: the system that values the dissolution of poetic canons and the system that values poetic canons. In this way, he is anti-poetic and poetic; conceptual (against expression) and Post-conceptual (sumptuously expressing the melancholic paradoxes of being ‘against expression’); symbolic and real; normative and queer.
76)On the other hand, Kenny’s less canonized second banana (here with a pseudonym) Bob Davidson, might, in all, be more interesting than Goldsmith because he is less accessible. That is, his work does not so easily able to appeal to the system that values poetic canons (a la Perloff) but can seem to dissolve hierarchies. Nonetheless, a more common response to conceptual poetry, in general, will be one that finds it stuck in mediocrity and privilege. To mimic this reactionary discourse for a moment: “Bob Davidson sinks: his work belongs in the garbage and not a library…or even more pathetically, in a gallery room of art made in the era of the master, Kenneth Goldsmith. It holds up as poorly as most of the flarf spam folder poetics. Yet, of course, certain stars and geniuses, those who employ these methods ‘first’ or ‘best’ or ‘in the limelight’ rise to the top. If Kenny’s work does not properly fold in to the canon provided by the library, he made it so that it could fold in very smoothly with the art world. Davidson’s work fails to do this and therefore is more true to the promise of conceptual writing than Kenny’s, IE, it is more truly banal. It folds into nothing more than the garbage. It is like any old periodical. It appears then the one motivation that remains in the enterprise of Davidson’s aesthetic impotence is then, if not to be crafty, if not to be intelligent, then only to be not not-famous, to somehow rise above the garbage, to not be ordinarily mediocre, but extraordinarily mediocre, and how does he become extraordinarily mediocre? Only by playing by the rules: being around the right people, with the right publishers, writing the right manifestoes, and doing the right thing. That is, he has not attempted to suffer the ordinary mediocrity that comes from those writers who write for themselves, or for presses that fail to manifest in the limelight. Moreover, if and when it is pointed out that he has a lack of talent or conviction, he can milk the 21st century fact that hating only adds comments to the video, and therefore no critical indent can be made, because critique is an internalized part of promotion, if not as part of the very content of the work. He can do what the ‘institutional critique’ faction of the artworld has done for years which is very abstractly internalize the critique posed against their own work (for instance that it takes the place of craft and intelligence and wit), by simply adding it in to the work’s self-conscious awareness of impotence, but never face that critique head-on at a ground level. Thus, for all the rhetoric that poetry is dead, it would be more accurate to say: the critic is dead. They have been internalized and lobotomized not just by the appropriative ironic internalization of the artist but also by the critics themselves, who have lobotomized their own uncanny human electric ability to pierce deep in favor of giving abstract, communally sanctioned, and always pre-fabricated crits.” (this is not my opinion, btw, I am a big fan of Bob’s work, and am also applying to graduate school, at a place where he teaches, and would love to grab coffee.)
Does this reactionary position prove, then, that Davidson is secretly the ur-conceptual genius, and has truly pulled off an act of radical impotence? Or is he, rather just an ordinary bad poet, as there are ordinary bad poets in each school of poetry. Is he a genius for being such a bad ‘bad poet’ or is he just a flat-out bad poet. The problem here is that if his inability to achieve enduring relevance is supposed to mean something (ie, calling into question the whole genius theory apparatus) then in order to say this one would have to make a claim for the specificity and geniusness of Davidson’s uninteresting banality. Thus, it would be a poetics that is far too redemptive and therefore as ‘complicit’ with the genius theory dandyism as Goldsmith’s work. Therefore, he is in a bind: to make his work radically impotent it must fully drop into the periphery and matter only as sociological waste, on an equivalent level with periodical garbage and spam mail. However, he does not ever plunge so far and instead, maintains a pretense of ‘pining for the canon’ and attempting to be meaningful and successful. This pathos, that the work ‘still tries’ kind of/sort of to be good and relevant is perhaps, in the end, a melodramatic failure to fail that makes the work finally doubly impotent (and this doubled impotence is perhaps the work’s last refuge to being talked about over time, therefore losing its impotence).
Those who watch Davidson, as many a Post-conceptual poet might, can sort of look to him as a way to redeem the ‘bad poet,’ and the banal follower, by creating a sublime effect that allows a reader to witness the labyrinthine maze of paradoxes around judgments of merit in art that are usually neutralized. However, in a world where it becomes increasingly commonplace to play around with such paradoxes (especially old do the Internet, where now we all are failures and amateurs, trying to capitalize that amateurishness into fame), the labyrinth becomes a little bit more obvious, and the shtick becomes that much more irrelevant and boring…but then, also, potentially that much more interesting…but even if it is more interesting…it is still too commonplace to matter to the traditional archives, and therefore, the only mode that will end up being used to select good from bad in these competing common place enterprises will be that of opportunistic fancy. And maybe this is always the case with the selection of an art star. And maybe that is too obvious a point (one that can be made quite clearly) to spend one’s whole life attempting to convey through artistic practice. Especially, since when you open your eyes, even just a bit, you can see that there are a ton of more interesting points to make and it will be hard to make more interesting points than that in Post-conceptual poetry. However, these same points start to become quite engaging when they escape the terrain of white male melancholy and begin to relate to the problematics of feminism, as happens in the work of Place, Low and Le Fraga. Since in feminism, to be quite crude, the stakes are higher, as the referent in question is not merely a case of blue balls.
57)If Language poetry is full of ironic emotions then conceptual/Post-conceptual poetry is full of emotional irony. In Language poetry one would find “I’m sad” firmly within ideological quotations. In conceptual/Post-conceptual poetry one finds sadness in the exhaustion of compulsively produced ideological quotations.
58)The caché of those modes of thought that have followed up on postmodernism, such as Conceptual poetry and Post-conceptualism and post-postmodernism and Queer structuralism, is not merely their claims: to be post-human, post-phenomenological, non-philosophical, robotic, or to have some improved access to non-human super-real truths or to have erased dogmatic subjective relativistic categorizations. These modes of thought continue to thread forward the lineage of poetry and philosophy, and remain centered around the subject of the author, and still link themselves to the same institutions. Therefore, nobody has actually changed their minds. Nobody actually thinks we are all artists. This is similar to pointing out that, of course, Language poets were obsessed with their authorial imprint (i.e., we do not need Kent Johnson to keep using his name as he lets us know this). For instance, see Jackson Mac Low: “it may be most correct to call such verbal works ‘perceiver-centered’ rather than ‘language centered’ (and certainly rather than ‘non-referential’). Whatever the degree of guidance given by the authors, all or the larger part of the work of giving or finding meaning devolves upon the perceivers. The works are indeed ‘perceiver-centered.’”
59)I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by FaceBook, writing academic theses on the “starving,” “hysterical,” “naked,” dragging themselves through the Zurich museums at dawn looking for an angry fix.
60)No matter what else has changed, there are still celebrities.
61)And the celebrities that manage to succeed best in the Queer Structuralist, post-conceptual poet, post-postmodern, climate are the ones who can enjoy the machinery and use it well, the happy pothead video gamer (Cory Arcangel, Ryan Trecartin, oh or Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs: those who show with hope that one can still sell videos/film/movies after YouTube, or books after torrents) and so on and so forth …Obama Optimism (uncreative writing…becomes…creative writing; blackness becomes whiteness; queerness becomes normality).
62)We only are reading the most read links, only are viewing the most liked videos, masturbating to the image most masturbated to, befriending the most befriended friend. We are engaged in large-scale popularity contest, whose vocabulary is so universalized that even the most marginalized, un-social beings are thrust into the middle of it: since it is so de-centralized that we are all its center. We are unavoidably unavoidable; there is no surreptitious way to sneak in. At once, we are a meaningless drone (whose sole purpose is to click on advertisements) and the very center/reason for the existence of the Internet.
63)Everyone might be a celebrity: with their own personal news feed, their own personal search results and catering to their own tastes, interests, and friends (keeping haters and opposing viewpoints out, unless they have been checked and balanced by how many likes they have received or been moderated by the neutral Wikipedia editor). Queer lives life without straight, never put into the sort of violent confrontation that would disturb the process of identity formation. Gay men will remain post-traumatic subjects, cheered up by the market; straight men to remain unblemished bullies. We rely on each other by “not relying on each other” and that is the gayest thing of all.
64)None of us are celebrities anymore. Meanwhile, some people’s personal news feed explodes with a high saturation of impartial observers. They rocket into Queer Structuralist fame. They become the celebrities who exist after the age of celebrity.
65)We are all celebrities with our own Facebook Timeline that grants us instant retrospective iconic status. And its monstrous desire to absorb us all, gobble us all up, like a crazy photo album run amuck, extends itself towards the whole globe. Facebook is not just for the Western middle class, it is for everyone, from the Western proletariat to the third world revolutionary.
66)I wanted to become a video artist and was excited by how easy it was to trespass into that space by using cheap video equipment and posting my videos onto YouTube. My father would share my video links with his Facebook friends and I felt, already, like a superstar. Then as I became interested in being a curmudgeonly dissident, I found that was easy enough to do by blogging, downloading theory from a popular underground torrent website, and using Ubuweb. What I always wanted to do, was have that kind of implosion/explosion that made Stefani Germanotta into Lady Gaga, I wanted to find my Ur-Self, the one who could be as equally monstrous as the machine: could eat it up, for my own services, then spit it back up again at haters. I thought by putting it all out there that might do it, and in a way, it might obliterate me. I’ve yet to have this exciting transcendental moment of excess turned perfection, surplus turned into meaning, like a Trecartin acidtrip after which life all makes sense.
67)Taking acid and reading queer theory is as normalizing as having a lobotomy and buying a refrigerator.
68)My sister, the photographer Emma Bee Bernstein, of the same age as the Post-conceptual poets (b. 1985), imbued irony learned from our paternal heritage with as much disturbing nude confessional affect as possible. In committing suicide, she seemed to find a way to give herself over to the image of fame, to the extent that the image possessed her: she become embalmed by everything she had made, which all took on retrospective radiance, all of which could be bought and sold as an artwork. She crystallized her suffering and rage into one giant performative climax: and said, in a post-feminist murmur, that she was reclaiming with agency the role of the suicidal femme. Yet she did not have final control of the apparatus that would control and document her suicide: making it into google searchable gossip, and granting her a Facebook page that cemented her life in a series of status updates. The last being “Emma is Charles.” (Our father had just visited in Venice before she died.) I was given her iPod when she died and played it all the time … just another technological artifact that seemed to become stamped with her aura and on it, a final On-The-Go playlist. The song: Elizabeth Harper’s “Charles Bridge,” replete with enough overdetermined and haunting ‘messages’ to function as a kind of post-suicide note.
Did she find a way to differentiate herself from paternal lineage, the mise en abyme of irony, or did she find something that looked subversive but nonetheless, gave her totally away to the conceptual apparatus marked by the name-of-the-father?
Oedipal battles are more discernable than sibling rivalries but not necessarily more important. I have anger towards everyone who stands where Emma fell: those who demonstrate conceptual mastery even when they demonstrate ‘queer’ or ‘feminine’ failure. But in the end, I also stand where she fell. I am glamorous, while she is rotting. Yet this may all be no more than a rouse to conceal my anger towards her: leaving me with debris from a very troubling emblem of the Post-conceptual poet and the Queer Structuralist.
Emma was troubled with Amy Winehouse receiving so much media attention for being out of control cause she wanted girls to live like rockers without all the ‘concern.’ Like Emma, Winehouse faded fully to black: it was not merely a performative ironic gesture. And, though her conceptual ironic parodic pastiched image remains, and that image to some degree produces a signifier that can incorporate the madness that was her decline (her lack of choreographed and intentional work can now become replayed as a kind of choreography of ‘madness’-as-concept), nonetheless with her death, her ‘work’ truly did cease; no matter how you may tease her corpse hair into a Ronnie Spector ‘do, her posthumous fame bears just a shadowy trace of the raw madness of one who really left the apparatus behind and faded into a blacker black than the black that will mark her legacy.
69)Kenny is a wonderful dandy. But now, we are all dandys. Dandyism, as Baudelaire meant it, suggested a type of difference, through style, that distinguished one from the crowd, since the “rising tide of democracy spreads everywhere and reduces everything to the same level.” This power was gained not through conventional work nor money but a parodic, self-conscious, aesthetic labor (as RuPaul says, in a refrain that supports camp labor “you better work!”). The dandy’s style suggested a refusal to compromise, a rebellion against the typical social order, a certain protest against normative work but nonetheless there was always a degree of complicity with the class system. Yet, the boundaries between dandy and crowd were intact. What happens when the crowd so greatly replicates the dandy, that there can be no distinction whatsoever? How does one pair the socialist humanism of Oscar Wilde with his aristocratic dandyism or how about the fact that he was at times a mere pedophile looking for lower class Arabs to impress and fuck? As with Nietzsche, is the disordering of value systems merely a way to hedonistically affirm one’s personal proclivities or does it carry a darker undertone: that there are no values and only a disturbed perverse will to power? Why does Foucault, versed in will to power, nonetheless choose to end his life espousing a narrow set of values that emphasize the hedonistic luxury of the Greek man-boy dom-sub situation?
70)These are the paradoxes of the dandy. One can endlessly reformat and repeat the paradoxes of the dandy (as I did with my recent character Leopold Brant) and it will never fail to titillate. So that is why we all want to be dandys. We all want to be New York School poets. And Facebook makes our wish come true.
71)As dandies, our life has become Spark Notes Idiots Guide to Ourselves: we become full of paradigms: kings of our world and the historians who notate the stories. But, as a consequence, we are now excessively burdened with a dystopic excessive surplus of images of the self that we cannot compete with. Instead, we imitate the machine’s precision at changing masks by internalizing its rhythms and become, like Mother Monster Gaga, a robotic fashionista. And this becomes true even of the humblest of web citizens, who use the Internet to mark the passing of alienated time. Even they become a dandy.
72)I can hardly compete with those younger than me, who can produce meta-histories at a far faster rate than I can: coming up with maybe 40 new paradigms a day and even fashioning multiple Facebook pages with multiple selves that are carrying out multiple web lives. And those who will be most successful will be those who can best manage the multiple tabs and multiple tumblrs without ever being so dour that they get off the Internet. Those who incorporate melancholy and confession into the content of their work without abandoning the same conceptual scaffoldings and without ever getting out of the social network.
73)Hopefully, we will be able to document ourselves so fully that there will no longer be a search for lost time (no more taste of the Proust madeleine: as Vanessa Place has shown, the 3-D printer makes one just as sumptuous). The baby book will become an indispensable part of our permanent record. And everyone will have a post-confessional purge. Jobs will judge us based on how long it took us to become potty trained. The gravity of our actions will haunt us from the earliest age. Nostalgia will become a science and we will be able to perfectly retrieve the most exquisite memories at any time we’d like. There will be no errors in our histories. We will be logged and filed from the earliest age by our personal bureaucrat robots, who will manage our various networking activities.
A world where Gaga’s twitter feeds are read from the beginning to end in cycles like the Torah. And where our preeminent poets can do nothing more than enact half-ass imitations of Gaga’s imitations of Gaga’s imitations of Gaga’s imitations (this has already occurred in LA). A world where everyone is a poet and has a tumblr and all the content of the avant-garde and pop culture and art is fully disseminated but still only 1 person/percent (a mother monster) makes all the money and gets all the credit.
74)Most of the already on-the-scene Post-conceptual poets have been able to make the contradictions within this essay rife by performing them and elaborating on them in their work. By more than just my own mode of opportunistic aesthetic discrimination they have received due praise for making rigorous demonstration of the problematics of contemporary culture, and although some of the writing may look a lot like 70s Language poetry (as it is a combo of performative ego with the egoless, mechanical), as well as non-minimalist 60s conceptual art, nonetheless by reflecting and internalizing the 80s simulacrum (vis-à-vis Conceptual poetry), these writers maintain a distinguishing mark that has very little in common with the utopian signifier-play of the 70s or the Zen/hippie body-play of the 60s. Sophia Le Fraga, who has found a way to suggest something of showy confessionalism within the monotony of webtalk and texting (and who merges concepts that one might find in Place with vaudevillian antics); Trisha Low, whose purge is the envy of any live journalist but also of any romantic lyricist; Josef Kaplan whose kill list pokes fun at the overdetermined political judgments that look down upon ‘comfortable poets’ (as Joyelle McSweeny has noted, this draws interesting links between drone warfare, surveillance, Facebook, and poetry communities); Andrew Durbin, whose dandyish girltalk is so fast that it threatens to explode; Danny Snelson, who delivers playful, colorful deformations, re-performances, and culture jammings of the Internet and the avant-archive; Steve McLaughlin, whose Puniverse crosses encyclopediac conceptualism with off-kilter hilarity; Brian Kim Stefans and his disgusting algorithmic hiccups; J. Gordon Faylor and Kieran Daily and their info-overloaded texts that produce reading sans perception; and finally, Steve Zultanski, who has autistically combined the typically autobiographical details of ‘imagination’ with the mechanically precise autobiographical details of ‘fact’.
However, equally exciting, are people who seem to elude this set of problematics and do something else: Not that something else (besides the problematics discussed here) can’t be found in the work of Post-conceptual poets too. For instance, Kaplan’s hostility and Low’s punkness, hint to a movement out of the irony/affect divide into more belligerently personal and potentially more romantic/visionary territories. Sites like gausspdf and trollthread and my own upcoming film journal, bloodytentpegs, attempt to drive through these conditions without ever so easily converting the ‘general economy’ into a ‘restricted economy’ (or vice versa) but showing the perverse messiness of those categories.
75)Two poets of the same age and coterie as the Post-conceptual poets, who, nonetheless, can hardly be called Post-conceptual poets, as they have bypassed conceptual influence altogether, are Cecilia Corrigan and Lonely Christopher; Christopher drawing from new narrative (and its interweavings of the dark abject transgressions of Rimbaud, Bataille, Kristeva with contemporary gay life) and Corrigan drawing from absurdist comedy (something she has in common with some flarfists and Language poets but she has shown much more pizzazz than even the funniest of the ‘funny avant-garde poets’ and in this way borders on a kind of playful accessibility common to those rare crossover art/comedy sensations like Michael Smith’s work in the 70s or Maria Bamford’s recent work, but imagine if those two had brilliant literary skills). The sensibilities of Corrigan and Christopher mark the limit points for what might be possible for Post-conceptual poetry but what has henceforth not occurred.
And if Corrigan and Christopher mark outside points, then looking within Post-conceptual poetry, it is Trisha Low’s Purge that stands as a benchmark for radical work that can be done within the parameters of Post-conceptual poetry. The book, which veers between appropriated girl talk, humorous self-on-self drag, utterly intelligent and astute criticality, pretty lyric, and raw confession borders on doing that ‘new’ thing that could crystallize and define Post-conceptual poetry as legitimately different than what came before: for Low has internalized and worked through the death of the author and the death of the text (and therefore, is able to seamlessly manage ideologically satirical cut-ups a la Language poetry, as well as blatant amoral appropriation a la Conceptual poetry) but has also begun to push beyond this: and press towards the death of work. This is not an abandonment of rigor or structure (this work is obsessively structured and shows biting rigor) but rather an abandonment of the ties that bind the artist to assert a kind of ‘mastery of work’ to appease critics and audiences, in lieu of reaching that ‘vanishing point’ of brutalized madness that is not marked as ‘madness.’ This is why madness might not manifest here as ‘not working’ (anarchistic hedonism) or ‘excessive working’ (as it did for Foucault, not to mention Goldsmith) but rather, working under the confines that one sets for oneself, as opposed to the ones set by others. Of course, doing this might have appeal to others (from the passing interest of a scowl to the enduring normative interest that keeps Artaud in the canons). Indeed, Low’s work is among the most appealing and talked about of the Post-conceptual poets. But in a sense, all that chatter covers over a longing for the sort of ‘abandon’ showed by her work that most in the ‘crowd’ cannot achieve. And it is here, that an avant-garde might always crop up, just as an asylum might always crop up, because only so very few are willing to abandon the demands of their time, and those few must be housed and categorized accordingly. Thus, it is, that Post-conceptual poetry, a truly vapid and historically uninteresting category houses several gems that will nonetheless always, to a great extent, be bulldozed over by the boundaries enforced by the stupidity of the phrase ‘Post-conceptual poetry.’ Likewise, the ‘death of work,’ (and its symmetrical counterpart ‘the death of the reader’) which here I speak of with a romantic appreciation, is just as likely to produce a work like Purge, as it is to produce dull mindless work that reflects an age of outsourced labor and very shticky disappearing acts (look I disappeared into a tired out, but updated through reference to the Internet, drag persona and ‘subverted’ what the midwestern straight male spectator expects, or did expect in the 1950s) instead of the sort of dangerous disappearances that risk a loss of being able to be seen by the spectator at all.
So much art done by those born after 1985 shows a lack of rigorous commitment to visionary and critically dialectical struggle and threatens to be totally lost in the complacency of Facebook event marketing strategies rather than ‘praxis.’ But that is not bad or worth condemning. Because that would mean throwing out what is potentially singular and disruptive about this period, which will not just be established by those who manage to rise above the mediocre middlebrow but also will be established by those artists who have risked plummeting into the abyss of the mediocre currents of the contemporary but somehow rose above it.
And, perhaps, most disruptive of all, (and most dreaded by those who fight for the prize of canonized poet) will be those who took the risk of being mediocre and complicit and drowned (failing to leave a distinguishing a mark). And even of more importance, and this is something Low’s art already does, is the potential of art in this moment to throw into question the very sort of ‘difference’ that is proposed by oppositions such as the one I just used (swimming versus drowning, marked and unmarked). And the questioning of this sort of opposition is found not just in works by bonafide artists (like Low) but also in the non-canonized universe of tumblrs and blogs that rapidly reassemble these distinctions in such an incisive way that those tried and true deconstructed binaries like ‘low art and high art’ ‘creative writing and uncreative writing’ ‘author and authorless’ start to seem antique. Let us hope that the ‘drowning of the book’ and the drowned woman will not just be folded into opportunism as such like Place’s virtually self-proclaimed sham of an ‘editorial position’ on the not particularly conceptual (except in name) anthology of female conceptual writing I’ll Drown My Book.
77)Though Language poetry made authors subservient to a larger field of ‘matter’ and ‘language games,’ the authors are nonetheless still THERE and not just as a simulacral decoy, which is what authors becomes when matter and language become subservient to firing neurotransmitters and representational structures (a kind of restructuralism) a la Conceptual poetry. What has been abandoned in post-postmodernism is what was palpable in post-language poetics (especially the work of Elizabeth Willis), a search for the somewhere else, which would not be merely an escape into the recesses of the heart or the structures of ideology or the metastructures of neurologically induced frame-narratives: but rather a turn to a somewhere else altogether (that is to say a visionary outside of capitalism that does not fall into academic Marxism, or hip queer theory but is ‘non-relational’ in more than just name).
Despite remaining uncanonized: There is still recourse to a true despairing that believes in no real (no affect, no queerness) and does not use this no real as a means for Baudrillardian solipsism or sophistry but instead fades from all those trace structures that claim fidelity to ‘radical events.’ Something close to what Low describes as the ‘actual mess’: “i think that performing a feminine mess involves all the markers of the grotesque, but that always seems somehow limited to the page or to a symbolic space. i was always more interested in making an actual mess not just via overdetermined referents (although i do love those) but in a contextual space, socially etc - in quite a literal way, the ways i want to make a mess are ways that are already so firmly disallowed or silenced that they are already illegible, and therefore can never be carried out to their completion, not visibly anyway.” A real fading to black. And the fact that this will never be properly canonized, and cannot be properly canonized, without a drastic erasure (so that it will be marked as ‘madness’ and thereby turned into a kind of normative definition that eludes what it is describing), is what is so disruptive and exciting about certain works of Post-conceptual poetry.
78)Like Robert Grenier’s search for the unspoken word in the ‘back of the head,’ or Hannah Weiner’s silent listening, the quest to find the deeply idiosyncratic, non-habitual word does not necessarily signal a rupture in the symbolic order that totally bulldozes over the system in place and then puts in its place a new authority (or else fails). Rather these more miniature ‘revolutions’ bring forth the unseen into the seen without necessarily enforcing that they be seen through coercive power tactics. This is a paradisiacal respite from the ordinary trappings of power (and all the many orders it operates within: the real, imaginary, and symbolic). But if it must be schematized as such. Such work seems to operate mostly at the level of the Imaginary: a subtle engagement with the ego’s conscious perspective on the material world, with letters and words, as well as, quite explicitly the imagination; and with deference, of course, to the order of the symbolic and the order of the real, but with a refusal to give in to either one. This is to provide everything a chain of never-ending contingencies, and functions like the ever-contextualizing neutrality of the historicist that Zizek derides for failing to reduce everything to a return of the same traumatic kernel of the real, manifested repeatedly through the appearance of incompatible differences. The acceptance of this ‘limited’ agency of artist, contrasts with the Maoist revolutionary or the Warholian ironist (both symptoms of the restoration marked by the 80s) though it certainly can have overlap. The latter two are committed to the symbolic order (the first calling for a new hierarchy the second calling for complacence). It is possible, however, to call a given Language writer a Maoist or a Warholian (for their insistence on creating a new canon but also for their ironic complicity with the Academy or pop culture). Yet, the heart of a work like Grenier’s “On Speech” or Watten’s “On Coolidge” is to propose an alternative to any such commitments to hegemonic symbolic orders (the hegemonic order of speech and its hegemonically enforced juxtapositions).
79)The poststructuralist attempt to subordinate meaning to language has been followed up by the post-postmodern/post-poststructuralist attempt to subordinate meaning to neurological transmissions. Neurophilosopher Paul Churchland’s highly influential alternative to folk psychology’s belief in the manifest image of humans is to give us a scientific image of humans: as bundle of firing neurons in a network of cells. The postmodernist/post-structuralist valorizes human intuition and ontological play and resemblance (being in the world, being in language), while the latter finds humans to be rather insignificant compared to meta-human structures, as well as ‘reals’ (in the outside world) that escape cognition. This has split repercussions: on the one hand, it can reaffirm the dystopian Baudrillardian death of the real (Conceptual poetry); on the other hand, it can reaffirm the utopian, queer reals of nature and the cosmos (speculative materialism).
The post-postmodern deterministic reliance on neurological, technological, algorithmic, and cosmological structure does not eschew liberal politics; on the contrary, it makes Marxist-Hegelianism seem more possible and also makes dogmatic procedures such as those proscribed by queer theory seem more probable. That is because dogmatic formalism becomes altogether more cleanly performable when the subject is so deeply relativized by queer structural mathematic precision.
The split manifests in another way as well. One group believes that having discovered a world of the real outside of the human mind, we can finally ditch institutional legacies of science and the subject (non-philosophy, queer theory, late affective romantic lyric); the other sides claiming that such radical departures from traditional subjectivity must be found precisely through science, psychoanalysis, mathematics, politics, and the avant-garde (Badiou, Zizek, and Conceptual poetry). Nonetheless, both sides of the split continue to rely on systemic formulations and institutional housing, but only the latter will admit to this.
80)Post-postmodernism is potentially nothing more than a mimetic refashioning of our contemporary global situation: We are kept at an alienated distance from the art of war, from the medium of war, from the imaginary of war, from any visionary dismantling potentialities of war. Meanwhile, the government stores up massive information in warehouses (not to mention its storing of prisoners) without any useful interpretive apparatus, which could potentially disturb the entire apparatus (from the NSA to the prison-industrial complex). Instead, the punctum (the guilt of the traitor) and the studium (the compendium of information) are glued together, as if in perfect harmony. This could be argued to have a grim overlap with Conceptual poetry (and there is even a self-conscious overlap in works like those of Josef Kaplan). The real is in that punctum, we don’t need interpretation, just search-and-destroy-engines to grab the real and expose it to the world. And maybe this is the world we live in. Whereas imaginary tactics would have us decompose (Percy Shelley, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida) the world to find truths (unstable or not, depending on your bent) the world is no longer in need of decomposing. We have it as a given formula: and must rather hunt down the real, as if we were in a videogame, finding it glowing brightly in-and-of-itself (the work of the philosopher and analyst and poet and artist is no longer needed: the real is just there already). The studium will deliver us the punctum: we have faith. Any of us can be queer professors and find out this ‘truth’ for ourselves. Using our Mac computers, we will all be connected through the shared fact of having peculiar tastes/disgusts, peculiar base relations to the system that can then help us to link to the system.
81)It would be easy if the whole world were just an amoral thing. However, negative dialectical poststructuralism is not dead; there are still formulations of it, from Cartoon Network’s Uncle Grandpa to Cecilia Corrigan’s forthcoming book Titanic to Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound.
82)Am I, is this, neoliberal mise en abyme? Am I, is this, indistinguishable drivel? Have I, does this, seek critical redemption? Have I, does this, offer critical redemption? Have I, does this, align totally with the museum, with my father’s name, with Kenny Goldsmith’s name? Have I found, is this, the proper exhibition space to make my points seem properly removed from the mise en abyme? Doing this now, and questioning my ties to the name-of-the-father, aren’t I repeating what the father does when he questions his ties to the name-of-the-father (his father Herman who signified normative 50s American culture)? By struggling with Kenny’s struggling with my father am I rebelling against anybody or arguing with a brother or myself? Should I, does this, suck up to Language poetry? Should I, does this, suck up to Post-conceptual poetry? Does this, can this suck up to my mother and feminism and M/E/A/N/I/N/G magazine? Should I, does this, don’t we all, forget about the promises of feminism? Do I, can I, love Vanessa Place and my father and my mother and Kenneth Goldsmith and Trisha Low and my sister? Can I, do I, love by, and through, critique alone?
83)Place, a summary of her viewpoints (note that this is not a real quote from Place) “One might think of poetry as being ideologically exempt, but it isn’t, for we are fully embedded in the symbolic order, and everything we do is evil, and rather than ever risk hypocrisy for what we do, we must admit it immediately, make it apparent, and parody it, we must constantly identify as the perpetrator to show and expose that we are one, and allow ourselves to be ‘killed’ when the revolution comes, never protest your guilt. The toughness of the law exerts itself always, even in places where it is evidently not acting: like poetry or other ‘inclusive’ institutions. Power still operates in poetry and creates inequalities. Therefore, there is no ‘good’ haven that is separate from the ‘evil criminals’ who we scapegoat for all our problems.”
84)Not everything is always so separate as periodizing schemas pretend them to be. Queer theory’s communitarian identity has something in common with the radically splintered dialects of the masculinist Bruce Andrews. Sianne Ngai demonstrates that blurred line, in her affect studies reading of Andrews, which suggests that by redoubling the excess of ideological artifices, Andrews brings about a kernel of ‘disgust,’ which we can share, and which can serve, as our ‘Real.’ This gives us a kind of detachment with which we can ‘look’ at the falseness of things and laugh, creating a kind of communal bonding. Also it forges precisely the communitarian identity that Andrews both loathes and seeks (the counter-hegemonic one is alright with him). The ‘generalized’ (queer) subaltern’s disgust (affect studies) functions as a mode of identification that leads towards a homogenous monolithic and accurate system, that is ‘better than’ any particular efforts to render the world forged by the real-in-solitude (a category that is ‘absent’ in this scenario). Here, these lines become blurred because Ngai loses the radical willful innovation of Andrews and gets weighed down by the need to theorize a collective enjoyment of ‘disgust.’ The point, perhaps of Andrews, is that he is ‘tough’ to identify with and creates a kind of blockage in our patterns of identification. Nonetheless, there is, I think a kind of linkage between what Andrews does and what Queer Theory attempts to do (vis-à-vis his own reliance on the universal figure of the counter-hegemonic but also his use of vulgar terms), with Andrews perhaps proving more successful because his work has an idiosyncrasy and a hostility that Queer Structuralist Universalist Formalism seems to lose.
85)In the academy and art world you aren’t supposed to enjoy (as you allegedly are ‘demanded’ to do in ‘neoliberalism’). But you are supposed to have a painful understanding of the ideological determination of whatever enjoyment you have. And you are supposed to confess your jouissance (your ideologically determined painful pleasures) to someone else in legible forms. “I am attached to the system in such and such way,” and then once you admit this, you are on the path towards having more power in the system, getting more power from the system: because in confessing you are rewarded, you are respected, you are understood. Basically, through Zizekian psychology, we are forced to admit our jouissance (that is to expose that pleasure/pain that attaches you to the system). In naming it, you are then ‘freed.’ And then this freedom allows you form a new master signifier and ego ideal to replace the old one (ideally a Communist one but in other parts of the academy, you form a queer signifier). Or if not confessing your desire, you are supposed to confess (a la Ngai) your disgust.
Thus a leading queer theorist Heather Love can confess that she couldn’t really put two and two together in her emotional life until she could receive the permission to write about her personal life through her dissertation. What gets lost in this emphasis on confession and didactic formalism is that the emotional turbulence that is academically designated, as jouissance, loses its untranslatability and uninstitutionality: that it might not have to be surrendered over to the symbolic order (to the affect studies journal, to Facebook, to the priest, to the therapist). The work of even the most cutting edge and interesting members of the queer academy like Ngai and Lauren Berlant seems to make diffidence and pain into a scratch and sniff coloring book that gives a neat little map of the bourgeoisie mind.
86)“The stuff of conceptualism, the textual thing, is the most static of objects, inert... Dead as a doorknob. Its representations are radical mimesis because they do not represent, just present” (Place). In line with speculative materialism, Place valorizes the content that dumbly remains after all politicized moralizing interpretation has exhausted itself. Here she offers a very sharp and snide turn against the post-structuralist emphasis on linguistic framings, particularly the idea that one should strategically and self-consciously use seductive linguistic framing mechanisms in politics, a case argued most persuasively by George Lakoff (b. 1941); since these frames dictate our lives and identities and choices, and thus are unavoidable. Unsurprisingly, a major critic of complicitally using seductive ideological frame-mechanisms to further ones political causes is Zizek, who is obsessed, always with the gap in the coherent frame that interrupts its intelligibility.
A different attack on the emphasis of framings was offered by David Micah Greenberg, in the Boston Review, in his critique of Charles Bernstein’s poetry for utilizing tactical and conflicting framings to make skewed political points, Greenberg argues that in the same way the far right does. It was always argued by Lakoff that the right had pigeonholed these tactics, and his suggestions to the left have been heeded, particularly by Obama, who found ways to present the public with a deeply seductive advertising campaign around the term “change” that linked up multiple different upsets into one coherent frame through which came his ideological message. And yet Greenberg imagines Obama’s preaching to be free from such ideological framing maneuverings, finding it to be neutral and gentle: “Obama is a better writer than most because, like Lincoln, he challenges audiences to create space for experiences different from their own. The left’s poetry is not always positioned to do so, to present or at least evoke the feeling of the differential texture of social experience, in order to counter those who would obliterate reality and human life when they do not serve them.” What occurs here is a very minor manifestation of the move signaled by Obama and in part generated by the insights of Lakoff that turned splintered micropolitical positions into a real, neutral, amoral, apolitical, universalized formalism. Neutral space should be given, through which difference can be experienced and the framing would be neutrally accepted (so that even a child could understand it) and thus we take the differance out of difference. Strangely, though the sort of self-conscious framings of Lakoff inaugurated this turn, it is nonetheless, a turn away from self-conscious framings and towards amoral rational structuralist posturings. Zizek berates Lakoff for putting forward “passionate metaphoric language” and “seductive frames” rather than “rational argumentation and abstract moralizing,” but it is rational argumentation and abstract moralizing that is exactly what makes Obama such an appealing candidate.x Obama is therefore a very PC/mainstream version of the sort of Messianic figure that is ‘supposed’ to come according to Badiousian-Zizekian prophecies. Therefore, the PC liberal belief in a kind of articulatable revolutionary spirit that is coherently oriented around a ‘gap’ ‘punctum’ ‘disdain’ or ‘void’ that is the center of the system (marked by queerness or femininity or blackness or poverty) is just like the Badiousian-Zizekian revolutionary, with the only difference being his proclivity for liberal democracy rather than for communism. Aesthetically, if not politically, the PC mainstream democratic liberals (like Greenberg and Obama) share with Badiousian-Zizekian communists a distrust of splintered quotidian dialects (such as those offered by the ghetto micro-cultures and minor literatures of postmodernism) that leave no space for rational abstract moralizing that can create a shared experience and lead therefore to ‘change’; that is to say, that Badiousian-Zizekian ‘aesthetics’ mean never giving up on party politics and a ‘majority feeling’ (even if that ‘majority feeling’ is a shared feeling of disdain and distrust). Likewise, Place distrusts quotidian lyrical splintered language that has not been filtered through the party politics and abstract amoral rationalism of her own movement (Conceptual poetry).
87)Sharing feelings, through dissertations (a la Heather Love), is not in and of itself the problem; but the mentality of compulsive sharing does foreclose the freedom of ‘off the grid’ flights. The unmappable confabulations of the 70s were thrown away in favor of the Maoist-Lacanian-Badiousian-Zizekian ‘restoration’ that peaked in Baudrillard’s deadpan 80s (covering over any possibility of punk or romantic escape/secession from the system). See the ways in which homosexual separatism (the radical faeries, for instance) and black separatism and feminist separatism (such as Shulamith Firestone and her notion of literally breaking apart the nuclear family) have been thrown out of the ‘picture’ of what gay/black civil rights are today. If in Detroit one might romantically note a possibility for secession, watch how it becomes covered over superfast: not by the right wing but by the leftist artists and their desire for an art market.
88)The danger of Post-conceptual poetry is to take refuge in the ‘progressive’ ideal of a widening luxurious middle class, that should have as many ‘rights’ as possible (legalized pot, legalized marriage), but also have as much outsourced labor as possible. Things should be relaxed, and we should all have iPhones. So much of Gaga-feminism and of Occupy Wall Street confined itself to this sort of viewpoint, in which freedom meant freedom granted through corporately owned social media: memes (lingos, LOGOTV), Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Napster and New Sincerity, all are symptoms here. Certainly, Goldsmith and Ubuweb are in danger of giving the avant-garde over to this sort of web utopianism [see Goldsmith on Coblert]. The more idealized, luxurious, and leisurely your labor is, the more money you either already make, inherited, or are going to attract. This is not just because we have outsourced ‘real work’ abroad, but also because we have outsourced our creativity to the past, which we rely on too heavily.
89)By outsourcing labor, habit, control, and rules we have lost our ability to come up with engaging, and adventurous, alternatives to the structures that dominate us. Which is to say, with the Lacanians, that we are “enjoying” ourselves too much. But it is also to say that the way out is not merely to list a thousand ways that “enjoy” has become a dominant demand in the West. Or to find a new master term (Post-conceptual poetry, for instance) to settle us down … but rather, to inventively and adventurously establish rules and habits that we desire (not rules and habits that the party desires).
90)But is this all fundamentally how language works? Is it always a return to the repetitive, boring, normative, so that anything truly remarkable will “pop up” as something to be read and decoded as a “punctum” or a “differance” or an “objet petit a” or “bold new artist”? Or else encoded into a new significant term that will freeze up within days and need to be displaced again?
91)With the disappearance of a stable ‘academy’ for the humanities, serious thinking and theorizing and poetics have, more than ever, a pressure to be viral or decorative (think of how one does not have to read Goldsmith’s work, now that is fine for a one joke thing but it is inevitably going to be everyone’s joke… And this is new, the dandy’s proclivity for the decorative, was once an illustration of avant-garde culture’s aesthetic turn, however the hyper dandys a la Goldsmith are more indicative of an anesthetic turn). The institutions of the visual art, party promotion, and Internet fame have all increased as the academic humanities have dwindled. So, for better or worse, serious thinkers and theorists and historians and critics and artists and poets have to spend more time angling their work for exciting small decorative galleries/journals with viral appeal. That is to say: “appeal to the worldwideweb” rather than “create complex esoteric webs within your own work.” Likewise, ‘negative queer theory’ and its sibling theories, for all their talk of ‘non-relationality,’ have proven nothing more than compulsory modes of empathetic outreach (to tenure committees and middle class undergraduates). And thus we must make everything so that it appeals to the world wide queer. I mean have you looked into Sarah Schulman’s queer international? And those who endorse this message of queer internationalism get red in the face when they are quizzed about the way in which their work is severely hierarchical, about how it even goes so far as finding queer internationalism as a justification for supporting Hamas. What we see here, as in Zizek’s Stalinism, and Badiou’s Maoism, and Schulman’s Hamasism, is the use of abject, particular minorities to endorse a global left. The case being, that any communal furor and universalized discourse, however vapid and violent and hierarchical, is altogether justified if it takes account of some abstract term like ‘queer’ or ‘proletariat’ or ‘immigrant’ or ‘the real’ or ‘the event.’ Instead of using those particular uncounted ‘minorities’ as a moment to radically break with the system of communal alliances and to rethink formalistic universalism, they are instead used to justify a constant and never-ending ‘recounting’ premised on an idea that one can approximate fairness if one makes continual deference to the ‘abject’ (and here, with all these thinkers, is the paranoia of ever slipping fully into the uncounted, that is to say, losing the status of being marked by and including their name as a ‘heroic, brilliant, radical’ critic, philosopher, or political activist).
92)The next note is perhaps the only truly personal (and autobiographical) note.
93)It has been a struggle, here, to discuss how a given group of thinkers (Post-conceptual poets) manages these contradictions. It’s hard to discuss things like this, as they occur, in the ‘contemporary,’ with your friends and colleagues (and family and family friends) implicated, in any serious way because if one does discuss things like this in a serious way (or even in a trivial way) you look very bad. For one thing you look like you’re very resentful of the ways in which people have been able to find ‘success’ by putting their work out through ‘successful’ and hierarchical platforms. But also, you look hypocritical because you are no better than those people because your critiques are probably disseminated through some sort of hierarchical platform, as well.
Art history is written by the curators, critics, and landlords who take the least amount of risk and are in the end the least remembered. And you have to be an utter psychotic (like Jack Smith) to complain bitterly about this to the particular people who ‘help you out’ as an artist. Though, it’s fine to pose it as a glossy and general critique (the kind offered by Bernadette Corporation), it is never fine to bite the hand that feeds in any way that would seriously cut you off from the network that is meant to support and indulge your ‘negative’ perspective.
Nonetheless, I am here, taking the risk of looking resentful and hypocritical (indulgent and juvenile) in order to make the point that –––––
As someone who has lived within the gated communities of the ‘negative’ cultures of theory and art, I am hereby stating that it is nonetheless almost wholly impossible to overwhelmingly refuse valorization (of your practice or the practice of your ‘friends’) at the end of an article in any substantial (specific and incisive) way, due to fear of humiliation and the risk of career injury. And it is this final humiliating limitation that is never discussed: that in the end you must not cut yourself off from everyone in the marketplace, only a substantially large group of people in the marketplace. Even if total hatred of everyone’s actions is precisely the most advanced and persistent manifestation of the research you are pursuing, a craft you have been routinely encouraged to carry to its apex, nonetheless, you are still always supposed to make an exception for the pocket fringe microcollective or journal or curator or publisher or parent or friend or gallery that will support you. You will inevitably be forced to gag on the cock of community and family [even if this community and family is some sort of neo-Paris-is-Burning anti-family parodic-family post-family or new-model-of-kinship or wtv]. And this perhaps is the final ball and chain that weds you to the market that you can all expect to find waiting there, if you pursue any sort of negative path. I hope that reading this will make you less surprised than I was when I arrived here.
1This follows up on many arguments offered in Notes on Conceptualism by Rob Fitterman and Vanessa Place. Two quotes from this in particular are relevant:
“What is an ‘impure’ conceptualism or Post-conceptualism in writing? A Post-conceptualism might invite more interventionist editing of appropriated source material and more direct treatment of the self in relation to the ‘object,’ as in post-conceptual visual art where the self re-emerges, albeit alienated or distorted (see Paul McCarthy).” (24)
“We are painfully aware that Conceptual Art was termed nearly half a century ago, and much of what we address might equally be called post-conceptual or neo-conceptual (to borrow terms from the visual arts).” (12)
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2Queer Structuralism/Queer Conceptualism
Judith Jack Halberstam Gaga Feminism
Gaga Stigmata http://gagajournal.blogspot.com/
David Joselit After Art
Jose Munoz Cruising Utopia
Lee Edelman Queer Theory and the Death Drive
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3Recent Arguments About Affect/Irony in New Poetry
Marjorie Perloff on Recent Lyric http://marjorieperloff.com/stein-duchamp-picasso/poetryonthebrink/
Eileen Myles on Perloff http://www.thevolta.org/ewc29-emyles-p1.html
Matvei Yankelevich on Perloff http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/the-gray-area-an-open-letter-to-marjorie-perloff
Drew Gardner on Flarf http://www.bostonreview.net/poetry/drew-gardner-flarf-life-poetry-affect
Keston Sutherland on Conceptual poetry http://afieryflyingroule.tumblr.com/post/49378474736/keston-sutherland-theses-on-antisubjectivist-dogma
Cecilia Corrigan on I’ll Drown My Book https://jacket2.org/reviews/drowning
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4Brian Kim Stefans gives a good summation of the differences between Conceptual poetry and Language poetry, and suggests the ways in which Conceptual poetry and speculative materialism (a constellation of philosophers following Zizek, Badiou, and Laruelle reach non-phenomenological, often scientific, approaches to ‘the real’): “The play of the referent—the polysemeity of the sign as valorized in Language poetry…is not the goal of these writers, so much as the formation of a radical new form of indexicality through which the reflexive property of objects—that they always already equal themselves—will come to supersede or compensate for that ineluctable property of words, which is that they never equal what they are pointing to. Letters and words treated as numbers in turn create equations out of their textual structure; letters and words both buttress them and comprise them. The work of literature itself forms, then, a sort of proof…. Fiction and poetry are now able to make statements about reality, albeit speculative ones, which are based not on journalistic observation but rather on the integrity of mathematical thinking, however etiolated it might be …The aim of speculative realists—and this is where they intersect with the apparently non-realist, highly structured mode of [conceptual writers]…is to create a description of this great outdoors (a metaphysics, even if this term is often disavowed) without the language of description, which would reduce this outdoors to mere thought…. rather than wallowing in the impasse of “postmodern” relativisms [and here postmodern/post-structuralism a la Language poetry is being referred to] —that there is no knowledge of the world untainted by cognition or conceptual categories, and hence that all we can ever know is the language of knowledge—these recent works are comfortable with the ultimate impossibility of divining essences or absolutes through thought. In fact, these works bracket the subjectivity of their “characters” (when they have them) in favor of subjecting readers directly to the work and putting objects for study in their hands, both literally and figuratively. In some more extreme cases, these writers even imagine a future in which literature will not be made by or for humans at all—what Christian Bök has a dubbed a ‘rotopoetics.’” (Stefans, Brain Kim. “Terrible Engines.” Comparative Literature Studies 52.1 (2014): 139-83).
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5Philosophy Discussed Here
Eleanor Kaufman, The desire called Mao
Christopher Norris, Badiou’s ‘Being and Event’: A Reader’s Guide
Geoff Boucher, The Charmed Circle of Ideology
Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, The Speculative Turn
Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound
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6History of Poetry and Art Discussed Here
Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity, Johanna Drucker
The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry, Paul Hoover
Our Aesthetic Categories, Sianne Ngai
Against Expression, Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin
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7Language poetry: inventive poetry (mundane networking)
The death of the author means the importance of the text, and the ideological linguistic framings.
Conceptual poetry: inventive networking (mundane poetry)
The death of the text has means the importance of the social network, and systematic formulaic rationality.
Conceptual poetry takes far more – in its strategy if not its surface styles – from the visual art collective “Art and Language” and from the Pictures Generation artists than from Language poetry, which was markedly at odds with these art world approaches. Conceptual poetry rejects Language poetry’s negative dialectical materialism and, rather, utilizes Art and Language’s and Picture Generation’s relational, dialogical, community-based, exchanges of commodities created through the collaborative valorizing of cliques. There, the coterie that forms valorization was a part of the work, forming an allegory for the notion that context determines content.
Michael Corris of Art and Language: “The collective is a stable group of individuals who are trying to develop an index of their commonality and who are trying to build on that understanding in order to construct a common culture. To work as a collective is to question how this commonality is reshaped, reformed, negated, or intensified by the conversation. This conversation does not necessarily have to proceed in a dialectical fashion toward a particular end; it is more related to Bakhtin’s notion of a dialogic conversation, which is without a pragmatic aim—in other words, conversing just to see what might emerge in and through an untrammeled exchange. A stable group is a necessity for being able to maintain that sort of fragile social encounter.” (95: Corrected Slogans: Reading and Writing Conceptualism).
Language poetry certainly falls back, as all schools of art do, on certain forms of cliquishness, but so too was there a difficulty emerging from openness and mutability of forms in contrast to closed forms or merely visual description.
Lyn Hejinian: “Difficulty and its corollary effects may produce work that is not about the world but is in it. The difficulty of the work, then, does not constitute an intransigence; on the contrary, it is the material manifestation of the work’s mutability, its openness, not just a form, but, more importantly, a forming” (“Barbarism,” The Language of Inquiry).
Barbara Guest: “art that is created is infinitely susceptible to new shapes because no shape can be regarded as final” (The Forces of the Imagination).
Ann Lauterbach: “Poetry resists false linkages…Both conventional narrative strategies and the mimesis of visual description are inadequate to the demands of contemporary experience…Resisting false linkages while discovering, recovering, uncovering new ones, poets might help sweep the linguistic path of its polluting and coercive narratives, helping us to re-perceive our world and each other with efficacy, compassion, humor, and mutual regard.”
Certainly, Conceptual poetry did not eliminate ‘difficulty’ ‘chance’ and ‘play’ but it is allowed to occur only within predetermined symbolic structures, and they are less so those of language (which is, of course, a dauntingly open ending set of limits) but rather the limits of art world-style social economies (what is cool and what is not cool), which can do little more than serve as an allegory for the context determining the content. It does not even test the theory. It just allegorizes it.
In a way, Conceptual poetry’s most brilliant scheme has been to ditch the impoverished poetry community and fall into the arms of the art world, thereby boosting the symbolic capital of their works.
“The art world excels at colonizing cultural forms thriving at its margins. Why not redefine poetry as a post studio experimental writing practice? Why don’t our great conceptual writers switch affiliations, deign themselves word artists, and await their mid-career retrospectives? I’m being only partly facetious: There are clear advantages to having one’s practice subsumed by the art world.” (William S. Smith, 111, Corrected Slogans).
This type of dematerialization (which is really no more than a hyper-materialization, a resignifying, and a price boosting of the poetry book) stands in stark contrast to the previously dominant condition of poetry making: the imaginative play that takes place outside the symbolic order, the play with signifiers of a certain stream of Language poetry (though certainly not all, as the Against Expression anthology proves the precedents for Conceptual poetry can be found pretty much anywhere one wants to find them).
Famously, the contemporary dematerialized art object leaves a buyable trace –
and some art is more buyable than others. (Only some ‘queer’ outsider art works are discussed in the academy.) This is a basic and obvious fact and yet it is so rarely mentioned, lest the critic be caught with his or her pants off. And then they would have to actually defend (to nobody other than themselves) the real reasons that he or she sets up the criteria’s that he or she uses. Critics have not been trained to justify their work to themselves, have not been trained to boost their own will; anymore than most art students know how to produce art without thinking first about teachers (later they will think first about dealers and critics).
Flaunting this predicament is Conceptual poetry, which by dematerializing poetic writing have fallen back on the dominant structures (even ‘languages’) of the visual art world and its hierarchies (ruled by Duchamp, Warhol, and Sherman), which, in of itself, is known for dematerializing the art object (and therefore falling back on the power plays of networks and communities). This reemphasis on networks is a key way to receive power: David Joselit in After Art celebrates art that is ‘connected’ and spectacular.
Here I though I’d just give some quotes from Joselit, none of them are made up, and I hope they will offer some substantiation of my points about Queer Structuralism. He is a rallying point for these issues because he finds queer theory and occupy wall street and the dematerialization of the art object and the networking superstar and the meme all to be the most radical, exciting things ever (and anything that reminds him of this stuff should be bought and collected by major collectors immediately)! “The point is not to deny this power through postures of political negation or to brush it under the carpet in fear of ‘selling out.’ The point is to use this power” (86-91). Institutional critique since the late 60s “parodies the power of art without either adequately defining it or coming close to actually distinguishing it” (91). For institutional critique: “either art’s power is ethically corrupt or its power is nonexistent. As a corollary to this there is a lingering tendency to regard art’s power as virtual—as an epiphenomenal reflection of other kinds of ‘real’ power, such as capital. I have tried to demonstrate that, on the contrary, the organization of the art world—its format—is as real as it gets when it comes to capital’s effects. It’s not just the purchase of artworks, but the self-image of entire nations, the transformation of neighborhoods and cities, and the fashioning of diplomatic identities that art is capable of accomplishing. In fact, its power has probably never been greater” (92-93). Ai Weiwei uses the power of his fame to express “dissident opinions.” “Ai’s political work did not result exclusively in object but in the exercise of power” (93). “In Fairytale, Ai did not critique the power of images—he exploited the power of art to transport people and things both spatially and imaginatively. This is our political horizon after art.” “Not every artist has the opportunity and capacity to speculate on art’s power exactly as Ai has done, but all can—and I think should—do so in the same way.” And, lastly on the Whitney Biennial: “[what it does is to] ‘occupy’ the Whitney—and hence the attention of its considerable audience—with reformatted forms of media that are usually associated with online sociality enjoyed in private. In other words, ‘immaterial networks’ enter the museum with ‘material’ traces, and this turns out to be very poignant. The museum can slow down the pace of online life and exhibit its frayed edges. I can’t help adding that I found the Biennial one of the queerest shows I’ve ever seen (my private term for it is ‘melancholy camp’—a kind of camp form without the exuberant flamboyance that the compression of the closet created). This is free-range camp—and it doesn’t seem a coincidence that it arises just as gay marriage becomes the most visible civil-rights demand for lesbians and gay men. Camp, after all, like the Internet, is a private language directed toward building networks!” (Joselit, October, 80)
Language poetry (I would say this too of Bataille and Marcuse) seemed on the surface to be optimistically utopian (particularly vis-à-vis McCaffery) but was secretly infused with a bitter pessimism towards all relational systems and communitarian identities. Conceptual poetry (and ‘death-driven queer theory’) seems on the surface to be pessimistically dystopian but is secretly infused with warm optimism towards all relational system and communitarian identities.
Likewise the little not-too-hidden secret of the anti-postmodernist, Zizek, is that there is a payoff, and a closure, and that he can get away with this, can justify his aesthetic, political, and psychological homeostasis, by mean of calling this very ‘stasis,’ this very reliance on traditional master signifiers the only possible radical act, even an act of ‘love.’ Likewise Goldsmith’s repetition of Warholian homeostasis is defended by Marcus Boon as an act of sacred enlightenment on par with the teachings of Buddhism. And Place’s work can be seen as a kind of cruel queer lesbian love (has this dissertation been written yet?). Is there not in Place an underlying “sweetness”? Her works are, at least, touchingly ‘considerate’ and she fights in her day-job for an impossible messianic freedom from the law that she nonetheless obeys dutifully! It’s heroic.
There is, then, within this post-postmodern (Conceptual poetry, Post-Conceptual poetry) reduplication of negativity, a masked positivity that by so brazenly construing itself as so negative, too real, so mean, and too ruthless, detracts attention from the art being made that is negative, mean, ruthless, rough, and hardcore but is not as gleefully insistent on being signified, as such.
I wish I could end like J. Keith Varadi has ended his piece: “In the meantime, it is undeniably necessary for some of the smarter, more dissatisfied parties on the fringes to step up and step out, and truly shake things up.” I wish I could end like RuPaul would: “You better work!” But I really don’t think you need to do any more work for them, sweetie.
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8Here one must note the difference between closely read incisive sophisticated deconstructive readings and open ending sloppy postmodern indeterminacy: “Indeed, I would venture to define this as the hallmark of a properly deconstructive reading as opposed to one which exploits a vaguely Derridean rhetoric of différance or, on occasion, a quasi-Gödelian rhetoric of undecidability. The former kind of reading entails a claim to discern or detect certain non-manifest textual structures – most often logico-semantic structures leading to a point of classically irresolvable aporia or contradiction – that are demonstrably there in the text under scrutiny even though they had hitherto passed unnoticed when subject to other, less exacting modes of analysis. The latter kind, conversely, makes liberal use of those terms and their various cognates but does so in a loose and approximative way, or through a broadly analogical (even metaphoric) mode of thought that lacks anything remotely comparable to Derrida’s practice of close-reading as a form of immanent critique.”
Norris, Christopher (2012-08-02). Derrida, Badiou and the Formal Imperative (Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy) (p. 90). Continuum UK. Kindle Edition.
For Badiou and Derrida there is certainly an undecidability which goes to the point that the truth always eludes the current grasp of knowledge but which nonetheless can be discovered through certain formal procedures. This follows Godel, but not the Godel who abandoned work once he discovered that truth eludes knowledge, but the one who worked twice as hard to demonstrably prove this fact:
“This was Kurt Gödel’s famous undecidability theorem to the effect that any formal system of sufficient complexity to generate the axioms of (say) elementary arithmetic or first-order logic could be shown to contain at least one axiom which could not be proved within that system or by using its own logical-conceptual resources.78 What is strange about this is that the theorem is itself set out and proved by means of a highly complex and extended formal-logical sequence of argument which cannot but depend upon just those resources that it shows to fall short of such probative warrant or ultimate demonstrative force. Gödel espoused an objectivist and classical – in this context what amounts to a Platonist – approach since he thought that it offered the only way to save his argument from just that charge of manifest self-refutation as well as affording the only adequate ontology and theory of truth for mathematics and the formal sciences. Unless it were the case that there existed truths beyond the limits of purely formal demonstration or proof, and unless our minds could have access to them by some non-empirical means, then there could be no accounting for our grasp of a theorem which requires such a highly elaborate structure of logico-mathematical argument yet the truth of which, on its own submission, cannot be derived by any purely axiomatic-deductive or rigorously formalized means.”
Norris, Christopher (2012-08-02). Derrida, Badiou and the Formal Imperative (Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy) (p. 89). Continuum UK. Kindle Edition.
Likewise, Language poetry had an aversion to the idea of the open-ended indeterminism that had marked something like Fluxus and conceptual art (especially in their first reading by Perloff) because they too had a consistent formal commitment to rigor, negative dialectics, philosophy, Marxism, and poetics.
On the other hand, Conceptual poetry abandons any recourse to the accessibility of the truth and therefore just gives empty reams of knowledge, a kind of dumb indeterminacy associated with Jamesonian postmodernism. But Post-Conceptual poetry by inserting the possibility of the truth and the real back into the empty forms of postmodern vapid indeterminacy given by Conceptual poetry points to a way in which that madness might take hold, in an sharp indeterminacy that threatens to abandon the formal procedures, and eschews knowledge, formal rigor, and work, in favor of a boundless, raw truth. A babbling play of signifieds that have subtracted the power of the chart and the signifier, and bares much in common then with the Foucauldian non-relational homoeros of Leo Bersani. Not in order to level the playing field (to give the mad subaltern abject woman a ‘voice,’ which is the task of a relatively conservative writer like Kate Zambreno) but to actually abandon the playing field altogether.
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9The negative dialectics of postmodernism/poststructuralism (including Language poetry) meant a play of negations and inconsistencies that goes between the rule and its exception, a play with this does not necessarily form a meta-authorial mastery (though it often does). Whereas, Zizek’s transcendental materialism, on the other hand, subsumes all difference and distinction to a structural logic that is inside the psyche and therefore idealistic. It is actually quite optimistic and euphorically in line with capitalism’s paraconsistent logic.
The speculative materialists and non-philosophers and their resurrection of a pure real also attempt to break free from the ironic crystallization of poststructuralist practices into a meta-author. Others flee to a straightforward and mechanical concept (conceptual poetics, network-based practices). Others still, offer a melding of the two: the symbolic (the concept) and the real (the punctum) and this is what Zizek offers and Place offers and the Queer Structuralists offer.
To paraphrase Place: “The slave’s repetition, the slave’s eternal return of the same, highlights the transcendental signifier and rupture’s their authority, the slave is signified by another, in another’s language, and by repeating the other’s language: he begins to master his master: this eternal return of the same, the same becomes difference repeatedly, avant-garde revolutions happen repeatedly, only by slavishly repeating them, can we point to the governing master-narratives, which we are culpable in.”
To critique Place: What this disavows, though, is the slave who cannot become a master: who cannot proficiently master the master’s discourse: the uncommodifiable slave. And it also disavows the ability to foster new relationships with such “slaves.” Indeed, Place may be right that the criminal justice system does little to redeem her clients. But locking their words up in a rigidly dogmatic and “cool” conceptual poetics is no better: it is the “same” and it does not have to be. Here there can be a difference that does matter, that does materialize. And a poetics that matters, that “redeems,” is possible.
Place mimes the slave who fails in just the right way to please the master. But we do not have to keep repeating the slave’s fuck-ups, multiplying abjectness, collapsing it. In fact, there is a certain rage at having to do that, in Place’s works, that challenges the more neutral assumptions of Goldsmith’s work. And perhaps this sows the seeds for creating art works that stand to elevate themselve, facing all the ridicule that comes with such elevations, and also facing the damage. The student’s discourse: the student does not necessarily want to repeat his teacher’s work, the teacher must therefore stand as a kind of punching bag, an old relic as it were, to be humiliated, used, and punched in, while the student learns self-satisfaction. For the teacher to be totally permitting is cruel, for some constraints are necessary. Such lackadaisical parenting leads to multiple Trecartin babies running around, knowing not when to begin or end, like little televisions. But rather than letting us face the horror of the vacuum that is our culture, these texts seem merely to collapse the art work into the vacuum, and therefore, give us no time to rhythmically approach it. Besides, the true competitiveness comes out: who can tumblr or meta-assemble the best? Who can make best use of compositing and pastiche techniques? It becomes a race for the fastest, most productive user of technology: even when it seems to be frosted in the sweetness of irony. We are being exhausted not by the machines, but by our need to be better on the machines than our neighbor. Therefore, while the new aesthetics in the ordinary art world, poetry, and activist context may be reductive, but it also provides a nice framework for studying these errors and elevating ourselves above them, as an artist and student ought to, in order to be critical and studious: not competitively better than others at being elevated, but equally able to stand outside the system under analysis for long enough to pose a judgment about it. And in this way, teachers must sometimes commit themselves to being systematized for long enough that a student may use them, make use of them, and then rework the framework in their head. It does not have to be a competition of who can elevate themselves best, or who is the most critical. Criticality itself cannot transcend the dynamics of power relations in groups: like a classroom, let’s say, but it can momentarily be isolated from these dynamics, as a kind of breathing space. If we collapse all the rhythms into that of porn: where everything comes on time, we may be perpetually ejaculating but we might also be missing some other joys.
One of the major shifts that occurs in the switch from Language poetry to Conceptual poetry (from Madonna to Gaga) is a switch from Derridaean deconstruction, dissemination, chance, and play of signifiers (in lieu of a master signifier) in which all truths are lies to Lacan’s rule of the father (his insistence on master signifiers) in which all lies are truths. Lacanian’s deride the free-flowing “poetics of indeterminacy” that imply a denial of the superego, the denial of the father’s power, the belief that he is imaginary, the belief in counter-culture, in protest, in change, are all pessimistically rendered impossible. The Lacanian maxim dictates the work of Place (especially in a piece where she changes each ‘woman’ to ‘man’ in the proto-feminist work The Second Sex). For Place, the Lacanian maxim is taken so far towards an almost a passive aggressiveness that it might paradoxically foster a belief that woman does exist and must exist. This becomes a challenge to the dematerialization of Conceptual poetry, especially when coupled with her work, which serves to bring the material, especially highly affective material, into Conceptual poetry. But what once was a critique of Conceptual poetry is now just a part of it as Place gave up her place as a post-conceptual poet.
What Place wants to do, like what Zizek wants to do, is to cruelly bring the signifier back into the lives of postmodern subjects, who pretend to be exempt from law and order. The postmodern attempts to transcend distance, to achieve everything, enjoy everything now (mentioned incessantly by Zizek) take us to a ‘real’ that we cannot ever have and therefore leave us with a Baudrillardian virtual reality that basically sucks. The solution, for Lacanians, is to use the symbolic to understand the real. Zizekian Todd McGowan: “Reducing the Real event to a meaning and refusing interpretation altogether, however, are not the only possibilities. There is a third way—that of situating the Real event within a symbolic context. This path allows us to attain comprehension without becoming comprehensive and thereby foreclosing the Real.” In other words, the real can only be understood within the symbolic. And even the imaginary, which is so often touted as a radical place in Lacanian theory, is only deemed radical because it will be able to alter the symbolic.
Zizek and Place point repeatedly to the symbolic order’s insufficiency (we are living in end times or poetry is dead) but do so only to prop up a ‘new symbolic order,’ which they can master. If in the past we had been told ‘enjoy,’ now, we are told ‘feel disgust’ and ‘you cannot enjoy’ – and this is meant to actually allow enjoyment. Just as Place’s use of ‘woman does not exist’ is actually meant to foster the belief that woman does exist. There is, then, even in the darkest, most cynical exercises of contemporary art, the underlying optimism that this will allow us to find a new mode of enjoyment. Just as, more simply, queer theory, by emphasizing a derogatory term (‘queer’), is actually meant to allow us to feel affirmed.
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10The real-of-the-real is romantic sheerly affective poetry (the id), romanticism and modernism and certain ‘weak’ postmodernisms (such as Hannah Weiner or John Wieners).
The real of the imaginary is the real of egotistical fantasy (often self-conscious and self-critical): flarf, strong postmodern/post-structuralist poetry (such as the canonized members of Language poetry), some Post-Conceptual poetry. Of course, poetics of the imaginary are closer to ‘normal life’ of the ego than the other two, as Drew Gardner has recently expressed regarding flarf: it is a poetics of everyday life. Flarf and some post-conceptualisms, like Language poetry, risk falling into the real-of-the-real whereas conceptualism for the most part has a blockade against this. Cecilia Corrigan’s work risks this fall though it is astutely held afloat by self-conscious, self-critical wit. It is its own bird but nonetheless shares certain affiliations with Language and flarf – but not so much (besides being generationally symmetrical, with post-conceptualism). Trisha Low’s post-conceptual narcissism comes to mind: the messy ‘mirror stage’ of ego fabrication, imitation, differentiation, and fantasy takes place. Lacan rightfully aside, what Low calls this, among other things, is the ‘not-not me’: a regurgitated, messy, mixture of cultural fantasies. Indeed, it is unclear the degree to which what Post-conceptualismis able to do is all that distinguishable from flarf or Language poetry. Nada Gordon: “I do not privilege, obviously, appropriated writing over a more Romantic interiorly generated writing…in fact, the sort of writing that most intrigues me is that which…performs a kind of pavan between these two modes, because that is how I experience the world, as input and output gracefully and/or shockingly affecting each other” (153, Drown My Book).
The real-of-the-symbolic (the matheme, the real discovered through and by the letter alone): Conceptual poetry, post-postmodernism, speculative materialism, the end point of Zizekian-Badiousian readings of Lacan (which tend to deny access to the real-of-the-real, and finds the real-of-the-imaginary as something to be traversed so that one receives the formal clarity of the real-of-the-symbolic).
Some reasons to flee the real-of-the-imaginary
Neurotic quotes from my father’s book Recalculating (2013): “Ideology’s veils are imaginary; the freedom from these veils delusional.” (RC] 176), “Poets are fakers / Whose faking is so real / They even fake the pain / They truly feel.” (RC 3), “Poetry fakes nothing actually” (RC 98). “In the viscosity of process, the end never arrives,” “Speak truth to truth,” “Poetry is difficulty that stays difficult” (RC 4), “Overcome by nostalgia for the future / Bent over with a dry panic / I clung distractedly / To the promise of the present.” (RC 53), “In starts and flits / We dart and flip / With quirks and fits / Mirroring mist” (RC 101), “The imaginary ride that actually works.” (RC 89), “Even when it’s over it’s not over.” (RC 92), “I am a Jewish man trapped / in the body of a Jewish man.” (RC 129). , “Send me away / I’ve never been there” (RC 156). “Here where I find you, here will I lose you.” (RC 171).
In these quotes, you can see not only representation of the stuckness of ego-based imaginary life, but also its mirroring murkiness, and most crucially its immanence: the inability to escape: to find a transcendental elsewhere. This can lead some to wish to retreat into the symbolic (a return to the iron clad signifier a la Place) or to retreat into the real (new sincerity, new romantic lyrics).
If Bernstein might seem gleefully trapped by the ego and its linguistic interpellation, by contrast, Badiou, Zizek, and Place turn against the linguistic constructivism of poststructuralism/postmodernism. For them, the subject of truth and the subject of history stubbornly resist the ideological misrepresentations and immanent materialisms of the Imaginary. The truth, instead, is always a transcendental outside, that can be determined only vis-à-vis formulaic formalistic procedures that lead to those revolutionary moments of change called ‘events’ (they are more restructuralists then poststructuralists). Therefore, the one with the power to know and to decode and to change a given situation is always the one who is the master of formula (the concept, the truth-procedure), rather than someone with an intelligent feel for ‘everyday life.’ Althusser and Lacan are exemplary heroes of postmodern linguistic constructivism, as well as for Badiousian-Zizekian post-postmodernism: they are read quite differently by each. The key difference is found in their conflicting readings of Lacan’s imaginary. The constructivists (like Bernstein) happily relegating everything to imaginary swerves and dips, while the Badiousian-Zizekians (like Place) always attempting to traverse imaginary idiocy. Post-Conceptual poetry, as a whole, has not shown its face on this issue yet. While it is possible that they might return to a delightful imaginary idiocy (like Bernstein and flarf), they might also increase the compulsory formulaic traversals of the imaginary (a la Place).
The zany (as Sianne Ngai terms it), a category that includes my own video work, Ryan Trecartin, and Kiki (Mx. Justin Vivian Bond) appears, in some ways to be a return to a delightful imaginary. But, I think it has grown increasingly clear that Trecartin’s zaniness brackets off (and traverses) any youthful exuberant imaginary so that it can be used for a very very very cool, slick style. And Kiki’s turn into Mx. Justin Vivian Bond suggest drippy sincerity and queer essentialism that has sort of thrown all zaniness to the trash. As for me, I’m trying desperately to make something ‘special’ out of an over-abundant load of coincidences and conflicts, in as pure and as rigorous a way as possible. But also I’m trying to preserve as much of my own melancholic introverted commitment to writing, performing, and making videos as I possibly can in the face of my own compulsory drive towards institutional success and attention-whoring.
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11Nick Srinek writes, “Non-philosophy, in its most basic sense, is an attempt to limit philosophy’s pretensions in the name of the real of radical immanence. It is an attempt to shear immanence of any constitutive relation with the transcendences of thought, language, or any other form of ideality, thereby revealing the Real’s absolute determining power—independently-of and indifferently-to any reciprocal relation with ideality. It is true that numerous philosophies have proclaimed their intentions to achieve immanence, with a number of them going to great lengths to eschew all ideality and reach a properly immanent and realist beginning. What Laruelle reveals, however, is that all these previous attempts have been hindered—not by their content, which is overtly materialist, but rather by their very form of philosophizing. It is this form that Laruelle gives the name of Decision. Even materialist philosophies are turned into idealisms by Decision making them reliant on a synthesis constituted by and through thought. Put simply, through Decision, philosophy has continually objectified the Real within its own self-justified terms.” [From “Capitalism and the Non-Philosophical Subject.” Bryant, Levi R., Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Re.press, 2011, 165.] Laruelle wants a non-philosophy that stops ‘deciding’ that stops ‘thinking’ and just presents the real Real, with a neutral uncontested symbolic jargoned framework. This is a perfect parallel to Queer Structuralism.
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12Queer Structuralism bears resemblance to the trend of new structuralism found in French philosophy through Badiou’s belligerent ontological turn against the reliance on Kantian epistemology and Wittgensteinian linguistics, in favor of establishing universal and meaningful (rather than chaotic and splintered postmodern) post-postmodern criteria. Also, the structuralists of October art criticism (that came to prominence in the 1980s but still holds heavy power in the art world) also come into play, for also rejecting the notion of splintered linguistic relativism, in favor of abstract reasonings and charts, ie, structural knowledge that, as long as it is being carried out by the most advanced specialists in the field, will always be the most correct and the most avant-garde. Yet the returns to structuralism over and against poststructuralism does not mean merely the production of ‘dry’ works, but it also means a return also to a kind of object-oriented-ontology where the subject is bracketed out so that one can romantically and melancholically experience the being-of-objects, a kind of wet structuralism that one can find in the more depressive ends of modernism, such as late Virginia Woolf.
It is a mistake to think that knowledge alone is what October is after, rather they are after a knowledge that is supported by a kind of Badiousian truth that is marked by its transcendence of knowledge, but can only be quantified and faithfully adhered to through knowledge. So Badiou and October, follow Descartes in appreciating the cogito and rational mind and yet this is only made possible by transcendent events (such as the October Revolution). Yet, Badiou and October, must give deference to Lacan who devalues the cogito by showing that although Descartes has a rational knowledgeable structured ego, it just comes to fill a lack of ego, it rests on a ‘nothing’ that the outside of knowledge/rationality/structure. Finally it is Barthes’ structuralism, which like Lacan and Badiou and October orients structure around certain lacks (so-called ‘punctums’). These punctums, radical avant-garde events, and lacks also are offered as a way to defend and justify the hierarchical dryness of Queer Structuralism.
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iiiEstefan, Kareem. “Deep Code.” Art in America, September (2013).
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vLotringer, Words Apart, File 4, no 4, Fall 1980.
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viSanders, Jay, and J. Hoberman. Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama: Manhattan, 1970-1980. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2013, pp. 36.
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viiBuchloh, Benjamin. “Farewell to an Identity.” Artforum (2012).
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viiiGlazek, Christopher. “On Ryan Trecartin.” N+1. N.p., 21 Sept. 2012. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.
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