Conceptual Writing As Fanfic

This essay originally appeared in Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World (Dallas, Smart Pop, 2013), edited by the amazing Anne Jamison. Buy the book; it’s a great collection from a unique press, and worth supporting.

APRIL 1, 2014: There are some interesting echoes of what I have to say here in Brian Droitcour’s “Young Incorporated Artists.”

Conceptual Writing and Fanfiction are the Bearded Spocks of their respective universes.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know more about fanfiction than I do.

What I know about is a thing called conceptual writing. And I think that one useful way to think about conceptual writing is as fanfiction about conceptual art.

Another might be to say that, in neighboring universes that overlap slightly, both fanfiction and conceptual writing play the role of bearded Spock. What I want to consider in this brief essay is the value of a kind of forced cultural exchange. In the event of an unexpected ion storm and a transporter accident, or its prose equivalent, is there anything useful that writers of fanfiction and conceptual writing might learn from each other? It’ll take me a few hundred words to get to the point where we can find out.

Conceptual writing is a term that has come to describe the work that my friends and I have produced over the last dozen years. One major example is Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, which consists of the entire text from the September 1, 2000 issue of the New York Times—stock quotes, ads, captions, and all—reset in 9-point type, reproduced line by line, and bound as a massive paperback book, with Goldsmith listed as the author.1 In more general terms, conceptual writing is a catchall description for a mixed bag of writing techniques used by people who are interested in the impact of networked digital media on the creative process, the social function of authorship, and the economy of publishing.

This sort of writing is fannish in the sense that it draws much of its inspiration from things that were happening in the art world from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. Conceptual art is a big, complex category, but Alexander Alberro usefully describes it in terms of four major “trajectories”: a deemphasizing of the importance of the artist’s technical skill and the cohesiveness of the final product; an increasing emphasis on the importance of text over images; a shift away from the aesthetically pleasing toward the conveyance of that odd modern invention we call information; and a questioning of how art is “supposed” to be framed, and the notion that there is a “correct” context (like a gallery) in which people are supposed to encounter it (pp. xvi, xvii ).2 Conceptual writing follows these trajectories because, with a few exceptions, they had been largely ignored by literary writers.

Before there was a clear consensus about what it was or what it was going to be called, what conceptual writing did was to draw attention to the rhetorical aspects of writing that canonical literature usually neglects: weather reports, legal transcripts, social media feeds, stock quotes, Usenet posts, and so on. These texts are the “dark matter” of literature; they make up the bulk of everything that’s written, but we habitually pretend that they don’t matter in any capacity other than the moment.

John Guillory describes such texts as belonging to what he calls “information genres.” In order to use them to convey that peculiar modern invention we call “information,” we have to pretend that they have no rhetorical value of their own that might taint it.3) By repackaging great swaths of information in media and formats other than the ones in which it initially appeared— again, think about Goldsmith reformatting the New York Times as a book—conceptual writing drew attention to the fact that all writing is poetic. It is poetic in that it always says more than we intend, and we assign value to it in keeping with large sets of external factors that sometimes have little to do with the ostensible content.

What conceptual writing does now is produce more poetry.

Over thirty years ago, legendary avant-garde poet and small-press publisher Bob Cobbing remarked that “there is no point whatsoever in adding to the quantity of poetry in this world. The world has quite enough poetry already. Probably too much. Far too much. The only excuse for being a poet today is to add to the quality of poetry, to add a quality which was not there before.”4 From Cobbing’s perspective, the job of the writer is not to produce more of something already recognizable, but to constantly shift approaches and techniques, literally making difference. Rather than simply adding to the bulk of unread books on the shelf, conceptual writing, like Cobbing’s work—and, I’d argue, like fanfiction—reframes big chunks of culture in a different context than they originally appeared, so that we can think about just how odd they actually are.

As is the fate of all successful cultural interventions, conceptual writing no longer exists on the margins of culture; it has become (semi-) respectable. Conceptual writers have performed in the Whitney Museum of American Art and the White House, and Goldsmith was selected as the Museum of Modern Art’s Poet Laureate for 2013. Say what you want about these institutions and whether or not conceptual writing deserves a place in them, but they’re very definitely not the margins. Conceptual writing has also produced the inevitable signs of cultural legitimacy: two giant, doorstop-sized anthologies, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing5 and I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women.6 Conceptual writing has become a big tent, and all sorts of people have laid claim to it (which is not particularly surprising, for reasons I’ll get to shortly).

From my perspective, this isn’t an occasion for either celebration or mourning. I’m trying to provide a relatively dispassionate description of a process of cultural circulation that has happened many times before and will happen many times again. Monet was a radical before he was a calendar. What interests me—and is of relevance to both conceptual writing and fanfiction—is what happens next: how a community based around a formerly marginal writing practice deals with its own relative success.

It’s certainly possible to argue that fanfiction follows at least some of the trajectories of conceptual art, too, but that would take more space than I have here. The similarities between fanfiction and conceptual writing that I want to consider right now have nothing to do with tone, style, or subject matter. What interests me are particular similarities in the practices of their respective communities, and how cultural policing keeps them separate. In some respects, I think that conceptual writing has more to learn from fanfiction than the reverse.

Conceptual writing, like fanfiction, grows out of particular kinds of interpretive communities.

In his Introduction to the UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Craig Dworkin coined the term conceptual writing in its present usage.7 (It has since been revised and expanded for Against Expression.) Dworkin emphasizes that even though the majority of the anthology’s writers “were participants in the set of contemporaneous practices that came to be known as ‘Conceptual Art’” (see Lippard8), “conceptual writing” does not refer exclusively to “writings by conceptual artists.” Instead, Dworkin is after something that he calls “distinctly conceptual writing.”9

This deft rhetorical maneuver allows for a bit of anticipatory plagiarism on Dworkin’s part. The invention of the category of “distinctly conceptual writing” means that regardless of era, nationality, form, politics, or aesthetic allegiances, Dworkin can now claim the works of modernists like Alfred Jarry, Gertrude Stein, and Samuel Beckett, as well as texts from various neo–avant-garde individuals and groups, such as Fluxus and the Oulipo. What’s going on here is an attempt to imagine a community.

All arts communities try to situate themselves within a larger history of the kind of work that they admire. Dworkin’s invention of the notion of “distinctly conceptual writing” means that he can expand his canon into the present, to include work by twenty-first-century writers. Those people, whose names have been listed in different combinations at different times and different places (Dworkin included), are my friends, and here we arrive at the crux of the matter. Regardless of where it is now or what was happening elsewhere (and I know for a fact that in Vancouver and England at least, other communities were developing their own ideas about what could eventually be included under the big tent of conceptual writing), my experience of conceptual writing began with friendships more than with a sense of stylistic affinity. If you don’t like the people you’re talking to and writing with and for, you find another group. (I suspect this is true of fannish writing communities and fannish friendships, too.) Family resemblances are superficial at first, and develop as you and your friends discuss and debate, then work to find commonalities and ponder differences with the other communities you encounter along the way.

Dworkin’s essay, of course, first appears in the context of UbuWeb. The closest thing to the online home of conceptual writing, UbuWeb is a massive repository of avant-garde art, writing, audio, and video: everything from anonymous street flyers and outsider art to digital copies of early films by directors like Gus Van Sant. Much of the material on UbuWeb infringes on various copyrights. All of it has been collected and posted without permission and has been maintained through thousands of hours of labor without remuneration—except, perhaps, in the form of increased online reputation. I’d argue that this sort of unauthorized and quasi-authorized categorization, sorting, and positioning of one’s literary heroes in order to contextualize one’s own work is functionally indistinguishable from fannish activity, including fanfiction.

What makes the difference between conceptual writing and fanfiction are the respective cultural fields in which they occur.

Conceptual writing is located within literature and is ambivalent about wanting out. Fanfiction is located without literature and is ambivalent about wanting in.

American architectural and cultural theorist Charles Jencks expands on Umberto Eco’s notion of “double coding” to describe hybrid styles that deploy popular and elitist connotations simultaneously. Double-coded texts communicate with the public and “a concerned minority” at the same time.10 Sometimes called “dog whistles,” such texts contain references that will usually only be recognized by those “in the know.” When Omar quotes a line from Steve Earle’s song “New York City” to McNulty in an episode of The Wire (“The Cost,” 1-10), and Steve Earle is already a recurring cast member in the show, that’s a dog whistle. Morrissey’s use of the Polari phrase “Bona Drag” for the title of one of his albums is another type of double coding. Like Cockney rhyming slang, Polari was developed to indicate to members of specific communities (gays, carnies, etc.) that you were one of them. Different manifestations of double coding can achieve very different ends.11 Conceptual writing and fanfiction both partake of double coding in a way that creates a strong but slightly skewed resemblance—think Spock versus bearded Spock. When encountered by chance against the backdrop of everyday life, both fanfiction and conceptual writing can easily be mistaken for something more mundane, unless you know the subtle signs (Spock’s beard) that indicate that what you’re looking at means something profoundly different from what you think it does.

Conceptual writing formed within the world of small-press poetry, though many of its practitioners are ambivalent about identifying their work as poetry or themselves as poets (witness Kenneth Goldsmith’s frequent refrain that he’s not a poet, even though he’s been published largely by poetry presses). Dworkin mentions instances in which “one of the central figures of language poetry—a writer who had in fact himself incorporated transcribed texts into poetry” repeatedly excluded conceptual writing from poetry.12 This same Language poet told me, on another occasion, that what I wrote wasn’t poetry, but was “some sort of conceptual art.” If it was a compliment, it was backhanded at best. I think he meant it as a kind of policing gesture, to exclude my work from the set of things he wanted to consider important. But it’s hard to tell, because in North American culture, poetry itself is already a marginal activity. Books of poetry account for only 0.12 percent of total market sales in Canada,13 (I’m Canadian; given the amount of support Canadian literary presses receive from the government, and the lack of such support in the US, I assume that the figure is even lower in the states). For all of the newfound cultural capital that some of its members have accrued, in terms of the number of books in circulation, conceptual writing remains a margin of a margin.

Fanfiction also began as the marginal activity around genre fiction (or, as the academy condescendingly calls it, “paraliterature”). There are established pathways between fanfic and genre fiction, especially in science fiction. Not only do some SF fanfiction authors become commercial writers, but some commercial SF writers do more than support fanfiction—they continue to write it themselves.14 But fanfiction is making serious incursions into mainstream publishing. Penguin and other prestigious houses are beginning to buy up little publishing operations that publish fanfic and were previously considered “vanity press” services;15 Amazon is moving into the business of licensing entire fictional universes, presumably in the interest of producing a domesticated version of fanfiction. In a contemporary context, fanfiction has a much more convincing claim to cultural centrality than conceptual writing and even, arguably, poetry in general.

Fanfiction and conceptual writing have both been fueled by the rapid growth of networked digital media.

If fanfic and conceptual writing both have their origins in the small-press circulatory practices of specific interpretive communities, both have taken off as a result of the explosive growth of the Internet. Here again we encounter Spock’s beard, because there are uncannily similar-yet-different theories to account for this growth in both fanfiction and conceptual writing, each with their respective critical champion.

On one side of the mirror, Henry Jenkins, the preeminent theorist of convergence and transmedia, has made a strong case for the reliance of transmedia on fanfiction.16 Briefly, transmedia theory argues that storytelling now takes place across multiple media platforms, creating entire fictional universes that require the audience to visit many of them to experience fiction fully, and to actively participate in the telling of its stories. Star Trek, with its multiple series, books, comics, cartoons, websites, and huge, active fan community, is the canonical example; Jenkins’ work began with studies of fanfiction in the Star Trek community. On the other, Marjorie Perloff, the preeminent critic of the literary avant-gardes, developed a similar theory of what she calls the “differential text,”17 which I’ve expanded elsewhere to a theory of “differential media.”18 Perloff’s work on this subject begins with a consideration of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget, a key early text of conceptual writing. While Perloff emphasizes the differential text is a series of aesthetic possibilities for different kinds of manifestations (Fidget has been, among other things, a book, a website, a performance piece, a gallery installation, and two tailored paper suits), Jenkins focuses on transmedia as a business model—but truth be told, both transmedia and differential media rely on the creation and circulation of cultural capital. Moreover, both have demonstrated that reputation and other forms of cultural capital can be translated into actual capital.

But there is a substantial difference between fanfiction and conceptual writing that proceeds directly from the relationship of each with transmedia and the differential text. Both fanfiction and conceptual writing can manifest differentially, but they place their emphases on different aspects of their source materials. Where fanfiction uses transmedia as its vehicle, conceptual writing takes as its subject the materiality of the new configurations and forms that transmedia provides.

Where fanfiction shifts characters to other settings, conceptual writing shifts text to other discursive contexts.

The basic move of both fanfic and conceptual writing is the ancient trope of the clinamen: repetition with a slight difference. In the form of a diagram, we could represent the respective swerves from tradition of fanfic and conceptual writing as spirals of varying degrees of tightness, expanding out from a point that they nevertheless continue to orbit. However, these spirals operate on different objects. Fanfiction works at the level of what’s written or said: for example, by combining characters from two different fictional worlds. Conceptual writing works at the level of the context in which something is written or said: for example, by shifting the context of a text’s publication from official courtroom transcripts to a hardbound edition published by a literary small press.

If fanfiction always proceeds with reference to some sort of original text produced by a successful commercial writer, conceptual writing begins by referring to gestures and practices produced by generations of successful avant-garde artists who already were calling the notion of originality itself into doubt. And yet, Dworkin notes that conceptual writing acquires a “strong sense of signature” because it makes “irrevocable” interventions into culture.19 Over time, a canny act of appropriation becomes indistinguishable from Romantic notions of creation out of nothing. W. G. Sebald allegedly gave the following advice to his creative writing students: “I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.”20 Creativity and appropriation are two sides of the same coin, and ultimately are inextricable from each other. While both fanfiction and conceptual writing might appear to challenge or threaten originality, they also rely on it and reproduce it at other moments.

Kenneth Goldsmith is the E. L. James of conceptual writing. Or, to put this all another way: This is an essay about E. L. James if I say so.

Both Goldsmith and James are symptoms of whatever it is that has replaced the crumbling narratives that we’ve used to make sense out of the tatters of modernity—some mutant form of celebrity culture.

Fanfiction is now demonstrably capable of producing bestselling authors. Conceptual writing has had some mainstream successes: the international success of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, and Kenneth Goldsmith reading for President Obama—and his subsequent lampooning by Jon Stewart—are two of them. If literature retains any of its privilege, it’s only so that privilege can be claimed by the Spock-bearded rabble that it traditionally relegated to the hinterlands, now bent on dividing between themselves the diminishing spoils of what we used to call literature.

To avoid reproducing the myopia and narrowness that conceptual writing and fanfiction came into existence to contest, they both need to recognize that they are part of a larger cultural tendency to see all creativity as a process of remixing. Dworkin notes that “in the twenty-first century, conceptual poetry thus operates against the background of related vernacular practices, in a climate of pervasive participation and casual appropriation.”21 The only problem with that sentence, from my perspective, is what counts as foreground and what counts as background.

By recognizing itself as a minoritarian practice (i.e., part of the background), conceptual writing might become capable of doing something that poetry has never been capable of: recognizing the things that look just like it and transpire all around it that are not published as poetry, don’t circulate through literary communities, aren’t received by people as literary texts, but nevertheless could be formally indistinguishable from conceptual writing . . . and not colonizing them for poetry in the process. There’s a price to pay for that, though: actually giving up the last vestiges of the Romantic notion of author-as-lone-genius, the ones that even a century of modernity refused to erase. In its place, we might install some sort of invisible but open conspiracy that’s capable of appreciating the tactical efficiencies of the things we want to dismiss as cheesy imitations and knockoffs. If makers of conceptual writing and fanfiction really desire to operate differently from culture at large (and I’m no longer sure that this was ever the case), they’d need to produce writers who are not interested in becoming celebrity authors, but are willing to dissolve away into the shadows before the laurels can be handed out. Not Warhol’s Factory, but Batman Incorporated.

Here’s a PDF of the essay as it appeared in the book.


  1. Goldsmith, Kenneth. Day. Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 2003. 

  2. Alberro, Alexander. “Reconsidering Conceptual Art, 1966–1977.” In Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, edited by Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. 

  3. John Guillory, “The Memo and Modernity,” Critical Inquiry 31 (2004 

  4. Cobbing, Bob and Steven Ross Smith. Ballet of the Speech Organs: Bob Cobbing on Bob Cobbing. Saskatoon/Toronto: Underwhich Editions, 1998. 

  5. Dworkin, Craig and Kenneth Goldsmith. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Avant-Garde & Modernism Collection. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011. 

  6. Bergvall, Caroline, et al., eds. I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2012. 

  7. Dworkin, Craig Douglas. “The UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing.” UbuWeb. Accessed 9 June 2013. http://www.ubu.com/concept/ 

  8. Lippard, Lucy R. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972; A Cross-Reference Book of Information on Some Esthetic Boundaries. New York: Praeger, 1973 

  9. Dworkin, “UbuWeb Anthology.” 

  10. Jencks, Charles. “From ‘The Death of Modern Architecture’ from What Is Post-Modernism?” In From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology, edited by Lawrence Cahoone, expanded 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Dworkin and Goldsmith, Against Expression 

  13. CBC Books. “To Read or Not to Read: Fresh Air Considers the State of Poetry in Canada.” CBC Books, 11 Apr. 2011. http://www.cbc.ca/books/2011/04/to-read-or-not-to-read-fresh-air-considers-the-state-of-poetry-in-canada.html 

  14. Romano, Aja. “10 Famous Authors Who Write Fanfiction.” The Daily Dot, 30 Aug. 2012. http://www.dailydot.com/culture/10-famous-authors-fanfiction/ 

  15. Sonne, Paul and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. “Penguin Group Dives into Self-Publishing.” Wall Street Journal, 19 July 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444464304577537092288601370.html 

  16. Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006. See especially chapter 3 

  17. Perloff, Marjorie. “‘Vocable Scriptsigns’: Differential Poetics in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget.” In Poetry, Value, and Contemporary Culture, edited by Andrew Roberts and John Allison. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002 

  18. Wershler, Darren S. Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (Canadian Cinema vol. 6). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010 

  19. Dworkin and Goldsmith, Against Expression 

  20. Skinner, Richard. “Max Sebald’s Writing Tips.” Richard Skinner (blog). 14 Jan. 2013. http://richardskinner.weebly.com/2/post/2013/01/max-sebalds-writing-tips.html 

  21. Ibid. 

mcluhan_gaz

Marshall McLuhan: Philosopher-Poet or Prognosticator?

Peggy Curran of The Montreal Gazette talked to me, Charles Acland and Will Straw about the legacy of Marshall McLuhan. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Wershler contends that those who focus on McLuhan as a technological fortune-teller are missing the point. McLuhan, he says, was really a poet who was at his best conjuring up those “philosophical bumper stickers” for which he is best remembered.

“McLuhan was not a futurist. In fact, the later you get in his work, the crappier it is.” He argues that McLuhan, who had studied at Cambridge University before returning to work at U of T, was probably more familiar than anyone else in Canada at the time with what was happening among modernist writers and artists in Europe in the early part of the 20th century. It was with thoughts of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the poetry of Ezra Pound and the Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso, says Wershler, that McLuhan concocted his phrase ‘probes’ and envisioned the newspaper as a mosaic, where a reader could absorb the world’s events in any particular order or disorder.

Here’s the full article.

Featured Image by John Reeves and Robert Cross, from the story.

porter_large

Finding Bern Porter

Sometimes the best writers of poetry aren’t poets at all. At such times, the job of the poet isn’t to write poems, but to find them.

The major practitioner of found poetry as poetry was Bern Porter. As Porter’s biographer James Schevill notes, the use of found material is a major component of 20th century art {{1}}, but few writers have devoted the bulk of their career to it, and no one developed the practice to the extent that Porter did. Formally trained as a physicist and engineer, Porter worked both on the development of the cathode ray television tube for the Acheson Colloids Corporation {{2}} and on the electromagnetic separation of uranium for the Manhattan Project in the Physics Department at Princeton {{3}}. On August 8, 1945, the day after the USA dropped an atomic bomb — the fruits of Porter’s labour — on the city of Hiroshima, Porter announced his resignation and never returned to work {{4}}. He subsequently spent much of the rest of his long life developing an expressly pacifist, intermedial, interdisciplinary fusion of scientific and artistic sensibilities that he referred to as “Sciart” {{5}}. The chief results of Sciart were the objects and texts that Porter referred to as “Founds”.

Over the course of Porter’s life, he published four volumes of Founds out of a projected series of seven: Found Poems (Something Else Press, 1972), which Porter wished to call Everybody’s Don’t Book (Dog Ear Press, 1984); and Sweet End (Dog Ear Press, 1989). Founds often include fragments of text, but “many are wordless, stemming from Porter’s insights into technology’s visual appeal” {{6}}. But founds were not just limited to words and images; they could also be objects {{7}}, sounds {{8}}, or even subject positions: “In the end,” writes Schevill, “Porter himself becomes a Found” {{9}}.

Like the objets trouvé of Dada, Surrealism and Merz, Porter’s Founds could be either physical objects or signs on paper. They were sometimes recontextualized without alteration, and sometimes modified in small but significant ways, such as cutting of portions of them away, or, conversely, combining them with other found elements to create a larger synthesis. Yet there are also some important differences between objets trouvé and Founds. Despite the apparent similarities of the objects themselves, they appear within significantly different discursive formations that are separated from each other by two factors: the horrific physical damage and considerable epistemological impact of atomic weaponry, and the rising importance of visuality as an effect of global mass media {{10}}.

Following World War II, Porter spent a considerable amount of time in Japan, especially in Hiroshima, attempting to come to grips with the consequences of his wartime employment. It was during this period that Porter began to make connections between his artistic production and a growing interest in civic planning. In the context of post-nuclear and the building blocks for the construction of a new one. Schevill cites Wastemaker: 1926-1961 (Abyss Publications, 1972) as the most important of Porter’s early collections of Founds. Porter’s comment that he chose the title “to imply not only the careless person who makes waste, but one who “remakes waste, who finds waste that is both significant and beautiful” demonstrates his own ambivalence about this process {{11}}.

To underline the shift in milieu that makes Founds different from objets trouvé, Schevill begins his discussion of Porter’s Founds not with Duchamp, Picasso and Schwitters, but with Tadeusz Kantor’s The Ruins of Odysseus. Kantor staged the play in a bombed-out building in Krakow during the Nazi occupation of Poland in the 1940s. The set decorations consisted entirely of “grotesque fragments of war” — found objects scavenged from the ruins of the city by the play’s cast. For Kantor, who at that point had no knowledge of Duchamp’s Readymades, “When the room was filled with objects, the text of the play lost its importance. What was important was constructing the environment, and the action of finding, choosing, and bringing those objects in” {{12}}. Making sense of Founds, then, will require not a hermeneutics of the object or text, but an analysis of the circumstances of their production, circulation, exchange, and the transfigurations that occur as they change contexts, with particular attention to the social space around them.

from objets trouvé: their imbrication in global media networks. Because of his prewar work on the development of the cathode ray tube and his postwar work at the University of California’s Engineering Materials Laboratory, Porter was acutely aware of the material conditions that brought about this shift in context. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of Porter’s founds expressly engage with mass media forms, especially photography, telephony and the post. For example, like Moholoy-Nagy and Man Ray before him, Porter produced a number of photograms (images created by placing objects directly on photographic paper and them exposing them to light — a kind of cameraless photography). Here again, Schevill argues for a contextual difference:

The process of “snapping a picture,” capturing a certain kind of external light, becomes a battle with an internal light that has burst out of confinement to exert primal force. If Man Ray’s and Moholy Nagy’s [sic] photograms achieved a distinctively decorative quality, Porter’s struggled to show — like Jackson Pollock’s explosive drip paintings that soon followed — the power of a new energy to distort, threaten, and thrill. {{13}}

Similarly, Porter’s The Manhattan Telephone Book 1972 “reveals the lonely anonymity and increasing defensiveness of a system that advertises open, friendly communication” {{14}}. It is in the ambivalence and tension that results from Finding an object and recontextualizing it that a productive critique emerge.

For the first decade of the 21st century, the most visible practitioners of found art have been Davy Rothbart and Jason Bitner, editors of (what else?) FOUND magazine, its accompanying trade publications and its website. The “One snowy winter night in Chicago a few years back, Davy went out to his car and found a note on his windshield — a note meant for someone else, a guy named Mario,” a noted they “loved” so much that they kept it to show to friends. When they began sharing their find, Rothbart and Bitner discovered that their friends had similar objects to show them in return. It was at that point that they “decided to start a magazine called FOUND, a showcase for all the strange, hilarious and heartbreaking things people’ve picked up.” After spending a year collecting materials, “then with scissors and tape we slapped together the first issue of FOUND in June of 2001.” The magazine was, at first, an annual production; the first of several trade books collecting items from the magazine appeared in 2004. “We certainly didn’t invent the idea of found stuff being cool” (Rothbart and Bitner), states the site, but beyond that vague admission, there’s no indication that the basic gesture of their enterprise has been an important technique of cultural production for the last century.

Substituting for the lack of history — or any vestige of critique — in this narrative is a sort of sentimental nostalgia that Fredric Jameson characterizes as one of the hallmarks of the cultural logic of late capitalism in Postmodernism. Nostalgia, argues Jameson, is not about “representing” historical content (including “our own present and immediate past”), but about conveying a sense of “pastness” through the stylistic connotation of physical qualities {{15}}. The love for all the strange, hilarious and heartbreaking things that FOUND has found, then, is a perfect match for their digital layouts of torn scraps of keys secured with adhesive tape that fill its web pages and trade paperback books.

This last point is important because, though FOUND mimicks the production style of the pre-desktop-publishing zines of the 1980s, it is another sort of entity entirely. From its second issue onward, FOUND already imagined itself as a commodity, complete with barcode, seven pages of carefully ironized classified ads, including a FOUND t-shirt and a CD that presage the rang of customizable goodies on the website’s “Merch” page, and, tellingly, a subscription form that is the only pristine, digitally typeset page in the issue. When it comes to selling itself, FOUND has always been all about clarity. The cover of FOUND: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World, the first paperback collection of the magazine (published in 2004), removes all doubt, announcing itself as “The National Bestseller.”

As Jameson contends, the commodity is the “other face” of postmodern nostalgia, and it exerts a powerful bidirectional influence. As simulacra like FOUND emerge, nostalgia reaches back and transforms early editions of the works of the Dadaists, Surrealists, Porter and even the first few issues of FOUND from historical documents into coveted collectors’ editions that fetch magnitudes more than their original cover prices on eBay and ABEBooks. As “a bit of yuppie furnishing,” they are every bit as contemporary as their networked digital duplicates. The latter also continue to transform, foregrounding themselves “as language and as communication (rather than as artistic production in any older sense)”, connecting “the omnipresence of the media as such” to the entire assemblage {{16}}. It should come as no surprise, then, that editor Davy Rothbart has parlayed his reputation from FOUND into a career not as an artist, but as a radio and print journalist, regularly contributing to public radio’s This American Life (again, selections of which can be purchased as a double CD from the magazine’s website) and a range of leading periodicals, including The Believer, High Times, The New Yorker and The New York Times, among others.

… but the chain of dialectical transformations doesn’t stop there. Borrowing from the vocabulary of communication and cultural theorist Raymond Williams, Jameson notes that the historical elements caught up in and transformed by a postmodern digital frame can “slowly take on the positive and active values of conscious resistance, as choices and symbolic acts that now repudiate the dominant poster-and-decorative culture and thereby assert themselves as something emergent rather than something residual” {{17}}. Out of the digital textual echoes of a revolutionary analog avant-garde past, it may be possible to imagine a utopian future. Jameson is quick to point out that there are no guarantees that any such utopia will ever materialize out of the incessant formation and destruction of assemblages of various signs, discourses, subjects and objects caught in the cultural ferment, but a provocative question arises. What happens when we start discussing possibilities instead of the already accomplished? What happens if we start to consider the problem from the point of view of potential? What, in other words, if we think about the Findable instead of the Found?

(to be continued elsewhere …)

Originally published as “Alienated 15: Finding Bern Porter.” Matrix 87 (fall 2010): 54-55.

[[1]]Schevill, James Erwin. Where to Go, What to Do, When You Are Bern Porter: A Personal Biography. Gardiner, Me.: Tilbury House, 1992. 5.[[1]]
[[2]]Ibid., 46.[[2]]
[[3]]Ibid., 59-61.[[3]]
[[4]]Ibid., 73.[[4]]
[[5]]Ibid., 6.[[5]]
[[6]]Ibid., 304.[[6]]
[[7]]Ibid., 246.[[7]]
[[8]]Ibid., 261.[[8]]
[[9]]Ibid., 271.[[9]]
[[10]]Ibid., 297.[[10]]
[[11]]Ibid.[[11]]
[[12]]Ibid., 296.[[12]]
[[13]]Ibid., 94-95.[[13]]
[[14]]Ibid., 302.[[14]]
[[15]]Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Post-Contemporary Interventions. Eds. Fish, Stanley and Fredric Jameson. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. 19.[[15]]
[[16]]Ibid., 170-71.[[16]]
[[17]]Ibid., 171.[[17]]

Protein 13 closeup

McLuhan, Poetics and Christian Bök’s Xenotext (video)

On May 14, 2010, I delivered the inaugural lecture for McLuhan in Europe 2011 at the Manchester FutureEverything conference. The text concerns both the importance of thinking about McLuhan in terms of poetics, and the implications that contemporary projects like Christian Bök’s Xenotext Experiment have for thinking about communications and media. Video of the whole thing follows:

Darren Wershler – McLuhan in Europe 2011 from FutureEverything on Vimeo.

Dynamic Typography

Say What Again: Avant-Garde As Software (video)

Gertrude Stein once observed that the first time someone makes something, it’s ugly and no one likes it. The second time someone makes the same thing, it’s pretty and everyone can like it. I’ve often taken Stein’s aphorism as a commentary about how the forms of the 20th-century avant-gardes, which were once so far outside of the mainstream of culture, have become smoothly functioning components of the vast digital machines that we use to sell things to each other.

In 2007, Jarratt Moody, then a student at the Savannah College of Art & Design, made “Say What Again” for a class on time based-typography taught by Professor Duff Yong. For a long time, it circulated around various video sites under the title “intonation.mov,” which I actually like better than “Say What Again,” because it sums up the nature of the entire clip without referring explicitly to its content.

Whatever you call it, this clip is the epitome of the phenomena that Lev Manovich describes in his essay “Avant-Garde As Software” namely, that software “codifies and naturalizes” the techniques of early twentieth-century innovators in Italian and Russian Futurism, Merz, Dada and the other avant-gardes.

“Say What Again'”s evocation of mayhem through letters in motion positions it as a direct descendant of Filippo Tomasso Marinetti‘s “parole in liberta” (words in freedom). What Marinetti was after was a form of literature that accurately conveyed the enthusiasm of the day for emerging forms of electrical and mechanical technology. In his 1912, “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature,” Marinetti writes: “One must destroy syntax and scatter one’s nouns at random” and “one should deliberately confound the object with the image that it evokes” accomplishing this goal by varying tones to avoid a “tedious unity” – using symbols instead of letters, employing a multitude of typefaces and sizes, non-rectilinear layout and so on.

In “Geometric and Mechanical Splendor and the numerical Sensibility,” he writes that, “The words-in-freedom, in this continuous effort to express with the greatest force and profundity, naturally transform themselves into self-illustrations, by means of free, expressive orthography and typography.” Nearly a hundred years before “Say What Again,” the sensibility that could have produced it was already in place.

The avant-gardes, of course, made films of their own, some of them typographic. Marcel Duchamp‘s “Anemic Cinema,” wildly innovative in a time of wild innovation, is an analog ancestor of dynamic typography. Given the technological limits of the day, most of the films of the avant-garde were quite short, so there’s a certain formal similarity between them and many of the clips on the Internet, which tend to be brief in order to minimize the limitations of streaming media. But the similarities go beyond duration to describe a particular kind of cultural moment.

Like the typography of Italian Futurism, “Say What Again” emphasizes the dynamism and violence of the culture that produced it through the placement and size of typographic elements. What’s more, the choice of particular typefaces also conveys meaning because of the previous uses of that face as well as its general shape and outline. Linotype Mistral, now inseparable from its appearance on the cover of NWA’s definitive gangster rap album Straight Outta Compton, connotes violence even without animation and accompanying blood spatter.

The slab serif face that the bulk of the video is set in is some version of Rudolph Wolf’s Memphis Bold or Extrabold. Created in 1930, “Memphis” refers to the city in Egypt, not the one in Tennessee – not because Egyptian writing systems look anything like these characters. When these characters were first developed for use in advertising at the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon had just invaded Egypt, and a vogue for all things Egyptian spread across Europe. Calling a new typeface “Egyptian” at such a moment was, above all, good marketing.

Shih-Tien Yang, an authority on Egyptian faces, reports an anecdote about Napoleon using square-serif characters on large signs in combination with soldiers using telescopes to relay messages over long distances. Maybe.

In any event, a canny typographer named Robert Fanning, whose Fann Street Foundry specialized in the development of display faces, dubbed the big blocky letters “Egyptian” (they had previously been marked at “Antique” by Robert Figgins in 1815). What does all this have to do with Marsellus Wallace? Well, like the soundtrack says, both are big and both are black — in typography, “black” indicates a weight of type that has heavier and thicker strokes than a bold face. Those who wish to can ruminate on the pharaonic power Wallace wields throughout the film as well.

The SCAD typography students’ work, and this clip in particular, have spawned something of a dynamic typography craze. Look at Moody’s online portfolio or Google “dynamic typography” and you’ll start seeing some very successful commercial work almost immediately. There’s nothing inherently “revolutionary” about any form; as the dynamic typography of Italian Futurism was once absorbed into Fascism, it’s now become part of late capital’s visual vocabulary. The Ford “Crazy Smart” commercial for the F-150, with voiceover by Denis Leary, brings things full circle, returning dynamic typography to Futurism’s obsession with the automobile as the nexus of mechanical speed and power:

What’s fascinating to me is that the production, circulation and consumption of this clip and others like it takes place without any real reference to the century of typographic innovation that preceded it. I suppose that this is how the “new” is always created – by locating buried nuggets of potentiality that were betrayed by the actual events of the past, then polishing them up for all to see.

ouija_green

Status Update: “Literature for the Focus-Challenged”

Brian J. Davis wrote a great piece on status update in the Globe Books section online:

Status update: ‘Emily Brontë and her Playstation are overly friendly these days’

Facebook’s status update bar may be its most popular, enduring and influential feature (given the rise of Twitter’s real time fixes for the focus-challenged). For writers Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy, status updates are also poetry. Or, rather, it becomes poetry after the RRS feeds of thousands of Facebook users have been harvested, shorn of the user names and attached to the names of dead poets or writers.

Wershler and Kennedy’s site statusupdate.ca performs that task with each visit, thereby creating an alternate universe where the famous and the obscure are alive, well and reveling in the banal. Thus, Samuel Johnson’s “socks keep falling down. Day after day, sock after sock. WHY?!?!” and “Ted Hughes is not a number! I am a free man!” Should you become fascinated by the fact that Kingsley Amis is “watching Serenity for the second time,” each dead writer’s name has its own RSS feed.

Some of you may note that Wershler and Kennedy are the same digital hooligans behind the poetry-generating website and book Apostrophe. statusupdate.ca does the idea of generated poetry one better by working on several levels simultaneously. First, and most important, it’s flat out funny and endlessly readable. Yet dig deeper and Wershler and Kennedy’s cheeky appropriation of Facebook’s purposefully “neutral” look also reminds us that Facebook is wholesale appropriating your information for all manner of data-harvesting, 140 characters at a time. By attaching the name of a writer to effectively anonymous lines, Statusupdate.ca lessens the bite of social networking economics.

If I can paraphrase an old radical slogan, “Users! One more step to be creators.”

Reposted with permission of Brian J. Davis. Featured image by ~!.

For-Sale-Liposuction

Found Poetry from Ubuweb

On January 9, 2009, Mercer Union launched “Street Poets & Visionaries: Selections from the UbuWeb Collection” to a packed house. The text that I wrote for the catalogue of this collection of found poetry follows, as does a link to a Flickr set of images of the event.

The quality of mind in the radio telescope is its will to select.
— Christopher Dewdney, “Parasite Maintenance” {{1}}

What are the outer limits of appropriation?

Digital culture is obsessed with this question, from both an aesthetic and a legal perspective. On the one hand is an entire century of artistic practices that gleefully encourage the copying and recirculation of cultural materials, from Delta blues and Dada to Flarf and mashups. On the other hand is an increasingly restrictive legal climate, which, as Siva Vaidhyanathan has argued at length, is entirely incapable of dealing effectively with “emerging communication technologies, techniques and aesthetics” {{2}}.

One response to this deadlock between the aesthetics of appropriation in a digital milieu and the legal forces that would constrain them is an increase in bandwidth. In his ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound claims that “artists are the antennae of the race” {{3}}, but in a digital milieu, a set of rabbit ears will no longer suffice. For Christopher Dewdney, contemporary artistic sensibility is analogous to the functioning of a satellite dish. From such a perspective, artists are devices for the accumulation and concentration of data, cool and dispassionate. The quality of the objects and texts that they produce depends on “the will to select.” Thus, the individual’s ability to sort and process the ambient signals that constantly bombard all of us is what constitutes contemporary criteria for a successful artistic career.

As Craig Dworkin has noted elsewhere, self-declared “Word Processor” Kenneth Goldsmith‘s personal oeuvre falls squarely into this tradition of technologized, high-volume appropriation {{4}}. This is especially true of recent works such as Day and the American trilogy (The Weather, Traffic and Sports), all of which duplicate huge swaths of copyrighted texts and performances with studied Warholian indifference. In this context, even Goldsmith’s curatorial work on the decade-old UbuWeb, the world’s largest digital archive of avant-garde sound recordings, concrete poetry, video, outsider art and related critical materials, is arguably part of the practice of appropriation art — perhaps even Goldsmith’s greatest work.

Goldsmith normally proceeds by identifying a neglected (because mundane, or, in Goldsmith’s terms, “boring”) site of cultural discourse, such as an average edition of The New York Times (Day), or an entire weekend’s worth of radio traffic reports (Traffic). He then transcribes that discourse meticulously, reconfigures the resulting digital manuscript as a book, and attaches his name to it. Though such projects have been common in the art world since the heyday of Conceptualism, they are relatively new in the world of poetry. By porting an established practice for aesthetic production from one field of cultural endeavour (gallery art) to another (poetry), Goldsmith has simultaneously constructed himself a career and staged an intervention which has changed the stakes of contemporary writing.

And yet. The texts and objects in “Street Poets & Visionaries: Selections from the UbuWeb Collection” occupy a privileged position, one that at first glance seems utterly counterintuitive in the context of the rest of Goldsmith’s oeuvre. The digitized versions of this material used to appear on UbuWeb under the heading “Found + Insane”; Goldsmith’s text on the website notes that “we’ve redesigned and renamed it Outsiders, reflecting broader cultural trends toward the legitimization of Outsider work,” reflecting a remarkable degree of cultural sensitivity from someone whose public persona is often gleefully abrasive and provocative {{5}}. Moreover, when exhibiting this work, Goldsmith never directly attaches his name to it, preferring the relative anonymity of “UbuWeb” and the curatorial first-person plural.

The greatest difference between these materials and all of Goldsmith’s recent work is that he circulates them without “denuding” them — this is Goldsmith’s term for the process of stripping away “the normative external signifiers that tend to give as much meaning to an artwork as the contents of the artwork
itself,” such as font size, lineation, accompanying illustrations, and so on {{6}}. In gallery shows such as this one, the original objects themselves are displayed, even though for Goldsmith, the normal practice would be to discard originals after digitization like so many empt}}y husks.

Part of the value of these objects is their stubborn materiality. Yes, the content itself is important, and Goldsmith sometimes performs these works as part of his own undifferentiated output, but there is also something here that resolutely resists digitization: the crackle of ancient Letraset, photocopier noise, fragments of yellowing Scotch tape, the trace of a hand wielding a Sharpie. These works, I would argue, are the secret truth of Kenneth Goldsmith’s practice: something small and sacred that makes his great, sprawling, transformative profanities possible.

[[1]] Dewdney, Christopher. “Parasite Maintenance.” Alter Sublime. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1980. 73-92.[[1]]

[[2]] Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity. New York: New York University Press, 2001. 133.[[2]]

[[3]] Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1960. 73.[[3]]

[[4]] Dworkin, Craig. “The Imaginary Solution.” Contemporary Literature XLVIII.1: 29-60. 34.[[4]]

[[5]]Goldsmith, Kenneth. “Outsiders.” Accessed 9 December 2008.[[5]]

[[6]]Goldsmith, Kenneth. “The Bride Stripped Bare: Nude Media and The Dematerialization of Tony Curtis.” Accessed 9 December 2008. 4.[[6]]

Street Poets & Visionaries launch photoset

dokaka_700

Dokaka: Air Guitar Jordan

You’ve all done it, so stop pretending.

Your favourite metal tune starts playing. You make a rock-face. You bend your knees, crook your elbows, tighten the fingers of either hand into a claw-like rictus and start flailing away at the invisible strings of your favourite make of imaginary axe.

If you’re particularly ardent about it, you may even do that rapidfire bobblehead neck-snap thing that, to be perfectly honest, makes you look like the Chicken Lady regardless of whether you’re imitating a traditional longhaired Pantene-Pro-using metal guitarist or one of the 90s-flavoured baldhead-plus-neck-tattoo-and-excessively-pointy-bearded ones. And then, inevitably, from somewhere deep in your throat, the horrible noises begin to emerge: “BWAOOOOOOOM … widdlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddla.”

Take note, hipsters: at such a moment, all irony collapses into the thing itself. Whether you really meant it or not, the cold hard truth is that you still did it and will, in all likelihood, do it again, given the opportunity. I used to work in a record store. I’ve seen you. You probably even came up to me at some point and said, “Dude, I totally don’t know the name of the song, but it kind of goes like this: “BWAOOOOOOOM … widdlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddla. Can you help me?”

As a matter of fact, yes. Yes, I can help you. Read carefully, for this is the most helpful thing you will learn all day: Dokaka is the Michael Jordan of air guitar, a veritable god, soaring above your puny bobbling head like a great metal condor.

Dokaka became great because of the lameness of others. Others like you. Once, Dokaka had a band. His band members were lame. As each lame band member dropped out of rehearsal in turn, Dokaka began to use his voice to replace the sound of their instruments. Soon, there was only Dokaka. Dokaka, and his greatness.

Using your voice to imitate the sound of a machine is as old as the twentieth century. Even during the heights of the modernist avant-garde, the sound poetry of the Italian Futurists failed to impress Ezra Pound (and, as a fellow Fascist aesthete, he was inclined to be sympathetic). In an essay on the work of his friend George Antheil, Pound ranted as follows:

I am perfectly aware that you can imitate the sound of machinery verbally, you can make new words, you can write ‘pan-pam vlum vlum vlan-ban etc., […] but these are insufficient equipment for the complete man of letters, or even for national minstrelsy. The mechanical man of futurist fiction is false pastoral, he can no more fulfill literature than could the bucolic man.

For Pound, music is nevertheless “the art most fit to express the fine quality of machines,” and “there would be something weak about art if it couldn’t deal with this new content.” Pound was dead wrong about many things, which is why his scrawny, anti-semitic ass eventually was tossed into a tiger cage (sans tigers) in Pisa. But Pound had this much right: the trick would be to complement the human with the mechanical without “humanising” the mechanical by translating it back into words. In the entire history of twentieth-century sound poetry, this happened all too rarely. And, when it did happen, it almost never (maybe ever) rocked like a motherfucker.

Dokaka succeeds where entire generations of barking hippies have failed because he instrumentalizes his voice and structures the results with the aid of the very technology he emulates. Dokaka lays down his vocal analogs for each “instrument” track by track, then layers them together. The result is an amalgam of poetic metal righteousness: human becoming machine, machine becoming human. If the Four Horsemen (the mightiest of twentieth-century sound poetry ensembles) and the Four Horsemen (the ultimately doomed biker-rock supergroup produced by Rick Rubin) banded together to record Metallica’s “Four Horsemen,” it might sound like Dokaka.

Might. Because Dokaka is producing vocal analogues for sounds that, strictly speaking, did not even exist until the late 1980s. Listen to the cover of Slayer’s “Angel of Death” on his website – perhaps Dokaka’s finest moment to date, work on Björk’s Medulla included. Slayer is, by almost all accounts that matter, the heaviest heavy thing ever. When Dokaka does that screaming glissando just before the “vocals” would normally start, if everything he doesn’t wasn’t all vocals anyway, that is the first time a human has ever made that noise.

… outside of the voices of those of you that used to come up to me in the record store and begin “Dude, I totally don’t know the name of the song, but it kind of goes like this,” that is. And, compared to Dokaka, you suck. Which makes Dokaka, by extension, the heaviest sound poet/air guitarist/slightly drunken otaku guy ever (that he may be the only sound poet/air guitarist/slightly drunken otaku guy in history is irrelevant to the crushing power of the logic of this argument).

So then: your path is clear. Study Dokaka. Learn from him. Emulate his moves. His kung-fu style is strong. And, slowly, because of your efforts to improve your own sorry-ass technique, the world will become slightly less lame.

Originally published as “Alienated 8: Dokaka – Air Guitar Jordan.” Matrix 78 (fall 2007): 46-47.