One rarely likes to be told how to read, where to position a text in the context of its literary theory and formal practices, or who the writing owes its legacy to. However, one of the greatest strengths of Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Northwestern UP, Evanston, IL, 2011, isbn #978-0-8101—2711-1) is that it does precisely that.
In this anthology, each author selection is beautifully cradled by an intro passage which tells us about the work we are about to read in such a way as to make us feel as smart as Dworkin and Goldsmith. These intros, including information about the genesis of the texts and typographical works we are about to encounter, take us into a space where we dialogue with the written and visual works even as we begin reading/looking at them. Most importantly, these informative prefaces are not overdidactic. They are astoundingly well informed but presented in a conversational tone.
Thus this book is an excellent teaching resource for professors seeking new ways to see quickly into the vast array of conceptual writing being composed today in North America and England. It is also a great resource for creative writing instructors in search of conceptual writing techniques to try out as exercises with students. Additionally, this collection of works helps those well-versed in conceptual writing enjoy the techniques being explored, seeing perhaps past these texts to their original conception, or towards writings by the author or other authors which the reader will be delighted to go and discover on their own. For any great anthology is an amuse-bouche, whetting the appetite, making you salivate as you crave more. Here, therefore, readers will be enticed to go back to the full books by the authors whose selections are anthologized and to enjoy uncovering more conceptual work.
Like many recent anthologies, Against Expression at first looks daunting—it is massive and its title made me fear that everything inside would be heady and devoid of emotion or attachment to the world around. But, as the editors note early on in the book in their preface to Walter Abish’s Skin Deep:
“Like many works of conceptual writing […] the result is neither depersonalized nor unemotional. Rather, the formal conceit attempts to discover or more closely approach emotional conditions by avoiding the habits, clichés, and sentimentality of conventional expressive rhetoric.” (p 8)
As I flipped through the book, getting a first feel, I noted that it is organized alphabetically. Immediately, I felt a bit put off, figuring the anthologists could not put in the time to think about how to organize the works they had selected in a useful manner. But as I read, I realized the strength of this lack of organization was that it allowed the works to butt up against each other, grating formally in ways that kept the reading dynamic. All of the sections and authors speak as much or as little to each other. Each work manages, peculiarly, to stand on its own. To try to group the authors by technique would likely have heightened a gimmicky aspect rather than do justice to the works. In short, Dworkin and Goldsmith were wise not to try and categorize the works by technique or formal exploration. Instead, positioning them one against another allowed the entirely or primarily visual texts—such as those by Monica Aasprong, Derek Beaulieu, Yedda Morrison and Elizabeth S. Clark—to create breathing and thinking spaces between the reading of texts that demanded longer attention because of their dense intertextuality and formatting in visual blocks—such as work by Brian Joseph Davis, Dan Farrell, Peter Jaeger, John Cage, Fiona Banner or Peter Manson.
Furthermore, the anthology does a nice job of presenting the complexities and divergence in ideas about what conceptual writing is today in its two book prefaces. For example, Goldsmith’s very concise intro Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now? was brief but thought-provoking. For him, conceptual writing owes its current dominance to the age of the computer, the easy cut-paste-reproduction possibilities offered up by the digital era. He argues, “With the rise of the Web, writing has met its photography.” (p xvii)We live in a time when “The ease of appropriation has raised the bar to a new level […where] language has value not as much for what it says but for what it does.” (p xix) Moreover, he argues that “[…] never before has language had so much materiality—fluidity, plasticity, malleability—begging to be actively managed by the writer.” (p xix) Though I was less excited by his citation at the end about conceptual writing only being good when the idea was good (something some of these texts might well disprove), I felt revved up by his propositions that we lived in an era where the plasticity of the word is at its height and where the new writings are also “proposing new platforms of readership. Words very well might be written not to be read but rather to be shared, moved, and manipulated.” (p xxi)
As such, this anthology serves itself up as a space of sharing, and not just sharing the selected texts. For the ways that Dworkin and Goldsmith set each text up with their mini-prefaces, offering a dialogic space, invites reflection about language and language making and use which at once is focused on each work included in the anthology and yet constantly expands that scope to past movements, the contexts of a text’s making, and even to the political arena within which certain works emerged or are still being written.
Dworkin’s intro, The Fate of Echo, unlike Goldsmith’s, is a lengthy reflection on the notions of conceptual writing and art, flirting at times with the origins of these terms, their rootedness in philosopy, genre, theory, etc. It is a preface which is slippery, hard to pin down, often declaring what conceptual writing is not, though not necessarily establishing what it is or where it is at today. Like Goldsmith, however, Dworkin seems keen on the notions of how words are used. This is to say, a space beyond what words may be saying or meaning to something stretching into a realm of plastic utility, tangibility. He is also intrigued by appropriated text and the explorations of appropriation, that place where, as he declares near the end of his intro, “Echo, literally, always has the last word. And she sets the first example for many of the writers included here: loquacious, patient, rule-bound, recontextualizing language in a mode of strict citation.” (p xlvii)
Two such works reusing given materials and which demonstrate a very different way of composing à la Echo using given text are Peter Jaeger’s Rapid Eye Movement (work echoing entirely quoted materials on dreams)and Noah Eli Gordon’s Inbox (work echoing emails). Just using these two authors as an example, one sees immediately that there is a layering in this book of the attentively composed and constructed language and that which celebrates the everyday we live in. Furthermore, the question of what one might mean by echoing work is quite varied. For example, in Jaeger’s writing, there are 2 wide prose bands of text at the top and bottom of each page. These two bands “[…] consist of quotations from dream narratives (top) and sentences from texts that include the word dream (bottom). No two sentences from the same source are consecutive in the poem.”(p 311) And thus, as the editor’s comment, Jaeger “yokes form and content, bringing the disjunctive jump cuts of the dream to the parataxis of collage” (p 311) What is immediately obvious is the work that is involved in this process, and the demanding attention to choice used in the composition of these texts. As such, Jaeger’s excerpt is layered, dense, dreamy and thought-provoking. Moreover, the composition or role of the author as selecting and acting on the language is apparent/revealed in how the language selected and about dreams is tightly woven in and around itself. Jaeger chooses to compose with fragments, peculiar punctuation and combination to elicit a meditative space in the reader because of lines such as those which begin the band at the bottom of page 313:
“only full and positive reality, the reality of the day. The library of dream is the largest library there never was. A catalogue of dream types or a description of sleeping states is distinct from and, insufficient for understanding the kinds of knowledge associated with dreams.” (p313—this passage starts in lower case, as quoted here)
This passage then contrasts with the band at the top of the page, which also begins in lower case and hints that it may also only be the fragment of a fuller sentence:
“a long corridor on an alien planet. At the party, I wore this stylish outfit that made me feel emotionally and physically uncomfortable. As I gazed out calmly across the blue water, I could see the setting sun sink like a blazing ball of red fire, creating a golden path across the waters, leading to my feet.” (p313)
Here, Jaeger’s language is varied much like a cut-up might produce. But the two bands dialogue across the page, between these narrative, descriptive lines and those associated with thinking about sleep and dream in the band at the bottom of the page.
In contrast, Noah Eli Gordon’s work appears far closer to the literal Echo—trapping and repeating snippets of daily conversations and mental meanderings. His work is more transparent and simpler/less demanding in its composition. For Inbox is a mass of text made up of the bodies of emails where the visual format of the email, the signature lines, etc have been removed so that the body of one email then another then another mash together in an unending, unbroken email paragraph which lasts for pages. The language reflects the everyday, the familiar for the author—we read here what echoes our own emails either written or received: tasks to do, writing being produced or reacted to. But the interest that emerges is how one email butts up against another and the mass in front of us becomes a kind of mirror of the days and habits of Gordon. The life of the author is here. His work is thus a pop cultural, everyday quotidian celebration for all the language that surrounds him everywhere—acknowledging, as many visual artists have in hundreds of installation and other works this past century—the art both of and about the most banal aspects of the self and life as art or art as life. I think here of Tracey Emin’s installation My Bed, which earned her a nomination for the Turner Prize in 1999—it contained her messy, unmade bed surrounded by bits and things including trash, condoms, blood-stained underwear, stuffed toys, stained sheets, papers and bottles. In the same way, these emails are like the things Gordon finds lying around him—not on his floor, but in his head and on his computer screen. The screen has become a space / place which we inhabit and which inhabits us these days. Gordon’s work reflects that and calls our attention to it.
Many of the texts in this anthology, like Gordon’s and Jaeger’s, elicit not only a reaction to the text, but make us rethink our own notions of writing, creation, literature, form and genre. They also call our attention to the processes of linguistic composition—either on a level of semantics and semiotics, but sometimes on a primarily visual language level. For example, less interesting to read, but somewhat fun to peruse visually are texts such as Rory MacBeth’s 10 page-long excerpt from his book The Bible, the “B” section, where MacBeth puts the words of the bible in alphabetical order, starting with “Babbler” and ending with almost 8 entire pages of the word “be”. Here, I doubt very much if readers will read every “be” out loud or to themselves, but this wall of “be” calls our attention not only to its excessive presence in the bible, but to the fundamental forcefulness of this verb as it connects to life for all of us and to our own willingness to live, to strive for things or merely to “be”. As such, this anthology is quite successful.
However, given my flattery above, as I moved farther though the book, what I began to see was how this collection lacks an overarching, solidly-founded and followed program. One might argue that the program is to demonstrate the ways, as Dworkin and Goldsmith praise in their intros, texts are being made rather than composed from many already-existent sources. Yet not all the works use these techniques. Some, such as an excerpt from a fake fashion magazine by Mallarmé (La dernière mode) and published under a pseudonym seems to be presented as conceptual under the guise that “by challenging notions of the authentic self, Mallarmé shape-shifts in ways that anticipate the internet age.” (p 374) But could one not say that of dozens of authors throughout the world, including many women such as Mary Ann Evans as George Sand or Karen Blixen as Isak Dinesen, who took on male names to “shape-shift” as one might on the web into a male or female avatar of any age or style? The editors here are stretching and reaching and, to this reader, the inclusion of Mallarmé’s La dernière mode seems superficial and somewhat forced, if not simply there to provoke responses (such as this) or to incite the purchase of the book by various people who will read anything by well-known authors.
Moreover, the text itself is simply a fashion text, written under the pseudonym Marguerite de Ponty. And as if to compound their peculiar inclusion of Mallarmé, the anthology also includes a much more fitting but untranslated for no apparent reason excerpt from Mallarmé’s Le Livre. This second excerpt by Mallarmé does fit more accurately with the writing techniques which seem to be falling under the heading of conceptual writing here, but I wonder why the editors did not seek out a translation and feel they did so (as they also do with a French text by Canadian author Christophe Migone) under what I would say is an erroneous position that the work is untranslatable. Personally, I think it is quite easy to translate. In an anthology for Anglophone readers, and which does not include untranslated texts throughout the book, the few French texts stand out as anomalies. An exception to this critique is Paal Bjelke Anderson’s text in multiple Nordic languages, printed in those languages specifically because, as the editors announce, “Any difficulty for English speakers posed by this untranslated text, then, is all to the point.” (p 38).
In fact, throughout the book the inclusion of writers from other countries feels hap hazard. Rather than taking a ballsy stand and trying to group up conceptual writing works being composed by different groups around the world (as for example Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg chose to do in their Millennium anthologies), here the editors fail to usefully represent what may be happening in conceptual writing globally. The inclusion of only a handful of French (11 of the 112), Austrian (1) or Norweigan (2) authors feels like a surface level tipping of the hat, perhaps so that the book can call itself international, or, more likely, simply because these are the translated works these particular editors have recently encountered which fit in with their ideas of conceptual writing at the time of making this anthology. The fact that the vast majority of these international writers are French also seems due in part because the editors read the Germ issue devoted to France a few years ago and which they are excerpting or reprinting from here. I would argue that it might have been more exciting to cut the foreign works from this collection. But if they do need to appear, it would have been wise to seek out other texts by the same French authors that had retained the attention of Dworkin and Goldsmith, and thus to present new translations of equally conceptual works to an American/English public. Instead, the few translated excerpts by these foreign authors keep circulating and those who read this kind of work are likely already familiar with these precise extracts.
In addition to its sloppy internationalism, the anthology seems blind to chronology. As a teaching resource, this makesit difficult for someone to try and enter into a solid presentation of the emergence of conceptual work through this collection. To illustrate this, one need merely to peruse the table of contents where the vast majority of authors found here are contemporary Americans, Canadians or U.K. writers writing at the end of the 20th century. The anthology is also primarily excerpting from books published just before or after the year 2000. However, instead of labeling and positioning itself as an anthology which presents conceptual writing on the cusp of the 21stcentury, the book splices texts in from many centuries—first off stretching back to include Americans from the mid-to late 20th century then backing up to those who lived on the cusp of the early 20th century—such as Andy Warhol and Clark Coolidge, or Charles Reznikoff and Hart Crane. But then, in addition to a handful of Oulipian authors from France (including the deceased authors Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau alongside one of the contemporary Oulipians, Michelle Grangaud), some of the unexpected authors contained in this book are the 18th century novelist Denis Diderot, turn of 19th/ 20thcentury French poets and artists Stéphane Mallarmé, Louis Aragon, Blaise Cendrars or Marcel Duchamp, and Irish poets WB Yeats and Samuel Beckett as well as the 1945 Vienna Group (Weiner Gruppe) and extracts from a 1931 text by CK Ogden. The book could have been organized to include a “precursors to conceptual writing in the early 21st century” section, but instead it seems almost accidental that texts from centuries ago, or even a century ago, somehow managed to wend their way in here. It also calls attention to the fact that there are likely hundreds if not thousands of works which could just as easily have been referenced or excerpted from for this book if the editors had decided to look farther. Thus the professor seeking to make use of this book for a course may find themselves less informed and more in need of getting informed to better present the selections.
To compound the difficulty of chronology and nationality, it is very difficult to locate the exact print dates for original works—Dworkin and Goldsmith include an acknowledgements section at the end of their anthology, but some of the works had earlier printings or, in the case of foreign work, the original foreign text and print date is not available here. Also, it is not evident whether some of the foreign work was originally composed in English unless one goes to google—for Dworkin and Goldsmith sometimes mention the translators in the acknowledgements, other times mentioning them in their pre-extract prefaces, and at times I wondered whether they were mentioned at all.
Finally, though I hate as a woman to be the one drawing attention to it, this is a book which contains only a little more than 25% of writings by women and yet is focused on the contemporary period where we are all aware that conceptual art and writing are certainly being practiced by as many women (if not more) as men today. I am not arguing for a representative slice, but rather the dominance of the male author makes me note the failings of the male editorial reader, the limited perspectives, having chosen to not include such significant authors as Susan Howe, who certainly falls into the bracket of echoers and those using archival materials to make writing today even if she herself would likely not want to be seen as conceptual, Lyn Hejinian—who gets referenced in editor notes before Gordon’s text, or Sharon Mesmer—another flarf writer. I also think that, to join the younger voices included here, one might consider someone like Adeena Karasick as having work which fits well with this collection.
In short, Against Expression is a fabulous anthology of conceptual writing with a few structural stumbling blocks—it is a reference book that asks for a bit more structure and perhaps some partner volumes to come. I applaud the hard work of the editors, for their selections and the dynamic and exciting collection that this book is. It is the first anthology to try and bring together and examine in English what conceptual writing is today, and as such it is a daring project. I certainly salute the editors for their hard work, and for getting this amazing dialogue underway. Bravo—I will be watching for the next one!