A Review of “Against Expression”

Against Expression:  An Anthology of Conceptual Writing
Edited and with Introductions by: Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith
Northwestern University Press, 2011

Since the end of ModPo I have been spending much of my free reading time with Dworkin and Goldsmith’s hefty  (600+ pages) and well-edited anthology of conceptual writing, Against Expression. In his introductory essay, “The Fate of Echo” (you recall Echo, who could only speak the last thing she heard – very uncreative!), Dworkin lays out the historical and philosophical context of this writing, and states the primary purpose of the anthology:

This anthology documents the explosion of publications since the turn of the millennium under the sign of the conceptual, and it attests to the literary energy of uncreative practices currently orbiting in swarms about those two terms. Whatever those practices eventually come to be called, they will soon look very different, and one of the reasons for this collection is to offer a snapshot of an instant in the midst of an energetic reformation, just before the mills of critical assessment and canonical formation have had a chance to complete their first revolutions.

The way to approach a book such as this, of course, is to dip in and out at random and light on whatever catches your eye. You can put it all together in a coherent (or not) context later, if that is your inclination, but I have been having a great deal of fun just sampling. What strikes one immediately is the enormous variety of subject, tone, form, and affect that is achieved from a number of related writing processes that proudly  and insistently proclaim themselves “mechanical.”

From Sally Alatolo, we get this, composed entirely of the titles of romance novels:

After Caroline
Searching for Sarah
Considering Kate
Courting Susannah
Losing Julie
Messing around with Max
Wild enough for Willa
Seducing Celeste
Loving Lily
Marrying Jezebel

At another point on the spectrum we get Kathy Acker with this deformation of Great Expectations and Eden, Eden, Eden:

The helmeted bowlegged stiff-muscled soldiers trample on just-born babies swaddled in scarlet violet shawls, babies roll out of the arms of women crouched under POP’s iron machine guns, a cabby shoves his fist into a goat’s face, . . .

with much continuance of violence and mutilation.

The collection also of course contains generous selections from poets well-known to ModPoers, such as John Cage, Ron Silliman, Bernadette Mayer, Charles Bernstein, Jackson Mac Low, Tristan Tzara, Caroline Bergvall, and the editors, Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin.

The range of readability of these excerpts runs from the highly accessible and amusing to “white noise” or the sound of a dog whistle. This is what we get from one of Vito Acconci’s works:

J12 G13 G12 B11 F11 F14 D13 C6 C14 F2 A9 A9 B10 A9 C14 J9 B12

going on for hundreds of lines ( a grid map of Manhattan infrastructure that’s way over my head), but this might reward further study, and even if it doesn’t we are compensated by Dworkin’s amusing take on a 1942 Minnesota personality inventory, which he rewrites as a confessional poem:

Once in a while I think of things too bad to talk about. Bad words, often terrible words, come into my mind and I cannot get rid of them. I am bothered by acid stomach several times a week. I am likely not to speak to people until they speak to me. Often I cross the street in order not to meet someone else. I am often sorry because I am so cross and grouchy. I can’t understand why I have been so cross and grouchy. I frequently ask people for advice.

For those of us who are trying our own hand at this type of writing, the selections in this volume are great grist for the mill. For instance I have made some fine amusement for myself by riffing off Charles Bernstein’s “My/My/My, “ a long list of possessions standing between him/us and enlightenment, by recasting it as a call and response. See https://novicepatient.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/call-and-response/ below.

I am also grateful to Dworkin for articulating so clearly and forcefully the cultural divide that this writing has highlighted (something we saw playing out in the discussion boards of ModPo). He writes:

Judgments about creativity and innovation in conceptual writing are displaced from the details and variations of the final crafted form to the broad blow of the initial concept and the elegance with which its solution is achieved. The question remains not whether one of these works could have been done better, but whether it could possibly have been done differently at all. Here, then, is where the conceptual writer shows up the rhetorical, ideological force of our cultural sense of creativity, which clings so tenaciously to a gold standard of one’s own words rather than to one’s own idea or the integrity of that idea’s execution. The hundred-thousandth lyric published this decade in which a plainspoken persona realizes a small profundity about suburban bourgeois life, or the hundred-thousandth coming-of-age novel developing psychological portraits of characters amid difficult romantic relationships and family tensions, is somehow still within the bounds of the properly creative (and these numbers are not exaggerations); yet the first or second work to use previously written source texts in a novel way are still felt to be troublingly improper.

The final service of this collection is to gather in one generous volume a sampling of works that have, by their extreme avant-garde nature, been published largely in small magazines, many of which are difficult or impossible to find. Goldsmith and Dworkin (along with Marjorie Perloff and Al Filreis) have done a great deal to legitimize the “uncreative” impulse.


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