Thursday, May 6, 2010

Notes on Conceptualisms

Place, Vanessa and Robert Fritterman. Notes on Conceptualisms. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Press, 2009.

Place and Fritterman’s book, as the title suggests, examines the possibilities and consequences of conceptual writing in the form of a series of notes, numbered one through twelve, most of which contain an additional series of sub-points. The book concludes with an essay by Place called “Ventouses” and an appendix containing a list of contemporary titles that explore conceptual writing as a means of producing texts. As the authors themselves claim, the book serves as “a primer” composed of “notes, aphorisms, quotes, and inquiries on conceptual writing” (9) that outline the “expectations of the readership or thinkership” (10). The first note, and the one that offers the most generalized account of what conceptual writing can be, states: “Conceptual writing is allegorical writing” (13). The authors consider conceptual writing allegorical to the extent that an allegory begins with a “pre-text” that exists within “cultural conditions” upon which the written text parallels (13). In a similar fashion, then, much of Notes develops connections between these two types of writing. Additionally, Place and Fritterman are indebted to German thinkers such as Adorno and Bürger. With regard to the former, the authors echo Dialectic of Enlightenment when they write: “Note that in post-conceptual work, there is no distinction between…contemplation and consumption” (18), and thus reiterating Adorno’s concept of fetishism; concerning the latter, the authors believe that “Institutional Critique, as an arm of Conceptual Art, cannot destroy these institutions, but aims to unveil and underscore them through demystification” (48), more than less co-opting Bürger’s critique of the historical avant-garde in his book The Theory of the Avant-Garde. Of particular interest within these notes is the manner in which the authors employ the term “hybrid.” Place and Fritterman write: “In hybrid or ‘impure’ conceptual…writing, the points in between [the pre-text and post-text spectrum] can accommodate a rebellion against, or critique of, the more stringent end-points” (22); their use of the word “impure” carries with it pejorative connotations, but the invocation of “rebellion” connotes a libratory impetus or upheaval. As such, the book fosters a linguistic ambivalence toward this concept. Too much cannot be made of the ambivalence because of the tensions produced between the term “impure” and genocide, especially due to the fact that in note twelve Place and Fritterman address the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, as well as the Holocaust. Likewise, note seven (letter a, point one) states that, when contemplating conceptual writing, “Race is also [a] consideration” (35). Given that the term “hybrid” derives from post-colonial theory and has been co-opted by many white, Western writers, Place and Fritterman's language seems problematic when examined rigorously. Of course, this should not come as too large of a surprise, as they write: “Failure is the goal of conceptual writing” (22), and “I have failed miserably—over and over again” (23). Finally, in the essay “Ventouses,” Place attempts to outline the contemporary “relationship between writing and image” (59), demonstrating the manner in which traditional conceptions of painting as “horizontal” (i.e. spatial) and poetry as “vertical” (i.e. temporal) have begun to erode because “visual images are being systematically drained of image, leaving behind image referent—language” (64). Likewise, the author highlights the fact that “words are images and images are words—linked, and different, one and two-in-the-same” (68), and thus further complicates a correspondence that could otherwise be reduced to a simple binary.

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