Notes on Conceptualisms by Richard Fitterman and Vanessa Place

Was considering assigning this for The Art of Stealing, but though there are moments that are very interesting, as a whole the book fell short of my hopes. The Fitterman section seemed a little too enamored of its own brilliance, as evidenced by the reliance on fairly obtuse language and a lot of the kind of name-dropping reference that is fine for notational purposes but I think is really a kind of self-satisfied flouting of ones’ own library. Though I had read most (not all) of the authors referenced, and so knew enough to decipher the encoded references, I would never expect my students to have to wallow through that. Still, a great source for other texts I might have them look at, so that’s useful anyways.

Vanessa Place’s section was much more engaging. But there was less engagement with the idea of conceptualism, more joy in the act of writing a kind of manifesto but less to say perhaps.

Still, for anyone interested in conceptual writing this is a great little text to read over.

The first proposition of the manifesto is that conceptual writing is allegorical writing. This relies really heavily on Benjamin’s idea of allegory, though that’s never expressly explored (or even alluded to). Since that is the premise, and it’s not explicitly stated or explained, the development of that idea might leave some wondering. This idea is actually not all that new, Benjamin Buchloh develops it and I suspect that’s where Fitterman is getting his start, because he directly references Buchloh’s essay later on.

The essential idea is that allegorical writing is writing that depends on the existence of other texts (pre- and post-) for its reading. Texts here in the broadest sense of “things that can be read” which of course includes images, media, advertisement, political rhetoric, etc. Fitterman doesn’t argue this, but I might, that all writing is allegorical writing, which leaves the idea of conceptualist writing un-usefully vague. This comes from my background as a translator, in which one of the first things I think about is the violence that is done when extracting a text from its cultural/linguistic context and placing it in a foreign one. Every text, no matter how “original” depends on the entirety of its cultural context for its rendering and it’s reading.

So the question really seems to be how conceptual writing, as allegorical writing, engages with the pre- and post- texts that it invokes and relies upon. Here Fitterman interestingly engages with the idea of failure: “Failure is the goal of conceptual writing” (22). Again, it’s thrown down like a lovely little nugget without any exploration or development, or even showing of what pre-texts he’s relying on in formulating that statement. Which is a little frustrating, because I’m intrigued by the idea but not willing to swallow it wholesale.

Again, I think of translation. There are some theories of translation that posit all translation is essentially a work of failure. Because the wholeness of the text can never be transferred (see, for a great example of this idea, Borges’ “Pierre Menard Author of The Quixote”) all translations are fundamentally failures. If this is the inevitable condition of a translation, then I might also assume the inverse. All translations are successes, as conceptual projects at least. I’d like to explore this more, but the Fitterman is so lacking in any in-depth engagement.

He does develop two interesting ideas of open and closed conceptual texts. An open text is, in his formulation, one that can be read horizontally – multiple readings but not multiple meanings/levels of reading. A closed text is one that can be read vertically, multiple levels of reading, but not necessarily multiple readings. These are things that translators have to consider at every step – what kinds of readings the text is open to, and how to re-create that openness (or another kind of openness) in the new language. An easy example is pun – that is a level of reading that does not necessarily create a new reading, but is a place to enact the existent reading of the text.

He briefly engages in the ethics of appropriation, deciding that ethics are essentially constructed by communities, and that it is “enacted in the question of editing.” A very interesting idea I wish had been developed or explored, again. Ethics leads to the question of faithfulness, another translation mainstay, in which he posits some perhaps-radical to those outside of translation questions like “faithfulness to what?” Again, no exploration.

In the end he talks briefly about the attention of conceptual projects to language of mass media and popular culture (the internet, etc.) as a recourse for poetic discourse that is already weak in terms of its own cultural capital. Though I assume he finds poetry (and by extension “progressive” writing, and perhaps by extension “progressive” artwork in any medium) lacking in cultural capital based on the ideas of Bourdieu, he doesn’t make his underlying assumptions clear. Too bad, because I think the way conceptual and progressive writing engages with mass media and digital culture is perhaps the most interesting part of this idea.

So yes, some really interesting propositions, with no engagement, exploration, or even enough revealing of his thinking to build upon, or even really use, in my own thinking. I can only hope that he’ll someday, somewhere, in some form, expand on some of the more interesting ideas here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.