It Quacks Like a Duck: Conceptual Writing

The classical inspiration for writing poetry is the humanist moment — the urge to communicate a classical ‘truth’ about the human experience — love, memory, heartbreak — through now familiar poetic diction. Poetry, now, has become an indicator for ‘what looks like poetry’ — if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be confessional humanism. The poem as finely wrought epiphanic moment of personal reflection (the poetry norm) underlines mass-culture and political sameness; it does little to question or confront how language itself defines the limitations of expression — both personal and critical. Writers that emphasize the classical and humanist definitions of poetry without considering the work being done in alternative forms of writing do little to further the writing of poetry: they offer only what is most palatable to the most conservative of audiences.
The accommodationist ‘official verse culture’ of personal confession and reflection has been flattened into a sameness of subject, form and structure. In striving for universality it instead degenerates into an implicit support of sloganeering, advertising and suburban consumerism. Neo-Conservative writing continuously underlines the relationship between power and language. But a number of contemporary writers distance themselves from the humanist trope by finding inspiration in found and manipulated texts. These texts allow the author to move writing out of its confines of the confessional, and into areas of language which are not typically seen as ‘literature.’
Marc Lowenthal, in discussion of the work of Francis Picabia, refers to writing in a way which is quite apt for conceptual writing as well — he suggests that Picabia’s writing deals less with language than it does with experience:

[…t]his is not language ‘transformed’ into art or literature […] or even a language that is experienced […] but rather, experience as simply experience—something that is private, amusing, serious, abstract, unpoetic. […] Language does not have to communicate to affect, to be ‘touching’ (14).

Emma Kay’s Worldview, successfully negotiates the schism between the humanist drive and the conceptual compositional strategy where language is assembled, not written. Worldview is nothing less than Kay’s exhaustive history of the world from the Big Bang to the year 2000 written entirely from memory. Worldview is highly personal, but rather than dwell on experience, and the inherent ability of language to represent meaning, Kay writes in the flattened, infallible tone of a high school textbook, Kay’s history of the world is created not through import, or sociological subject matter but purely on the idiosyncrasies of her own (faulty) memory:

A scientific breakthrough resulted in the discovery of the basic structure of human existence, Dino Nucleic Acid or dna, often known as the double helix. Scientists had been searching for years for the basic building blocks of life, and in 1953 a team of scientists in Cambridge University, with the help of Scandinavian research, isolated dna and saw that it consisted of two intertwined helical chains of genetic material. (107)

Worldview, spends only the first 75 (of 230) pages of the history of the world until the 20th Century, focusing on the encyclopedic reiteration of history primarily from the artist’s lifetime. Worldview works as the non-site documenting the site of Kay’s memory— while appropriating the flawless tone of cultural authority. A sample section of the index to Worldview reveals Kay’s own selective sense of history:

HIV, 156, 181
Holland, 45, 57
Holliday, Billy, 113
Hollywood, 86, 99, 145, 190, 195 Holocaust, 92, 95
holograms, 129
Holyfield, Evander, 197

Worldview is a maddening text, as it testifies that a contemporary artist could actually conceive of a world where ‘Aerosmith’ (p. 132) and ‘Archimedes’ (p. 16) have the same historical credibility. Kay presents a text which is both encyclopaedic in purview, but also centered on the fallibility of personal recollection.
Worldview’s non-interventionalist practice is typical of much conceptual writing, as the filter between the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘extraordinary’ becomes a theoretical one. Kay accumulates language and representation in a way that foregrounds the materiality of text, but even more so the documentation of experience. Materiality here is not one of humanist poetic — ‘the stuff of poetry’ — but rather one that is developed through the sheer mass of the extraordinary ordinary. It is typical of Conceptual writing that the author should work with extant material to re-contextualize and refocus an already existing genre (typified by what Kenneth Goldsmith refers to as ‘uncreative writing’) with a focus on materiality, collection and accumulation. It is the documentation of processual writing, as exemplified by Kenneth Goldsmith’s No.111, Craig Dworkin’s Parse, Rob Fitterman’s The Sun Also Also Rises and Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy’s apostrophe.
Sol LeWitt, in his ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’ — thirty-five sentences published in 1969 which operate both as a manifesto and as a piece of conceptual art in their own right—postulates that

28.Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly.[…]
29.The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course. (222)

This shared processual base for conceptual art and conceptual writing is not to suggest that conceptual writing is a temporally-displaced adjunct to conceptual art, but instead that the two share æsthetic values, and that conceptual art can be understood as a moment of Oulipian ‘anticipatory plagiary.’
LeWitt wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but a generation of writers later, these statements have taken on new weight. His statements on mechanical procedurality in visual art are also vital for conceptual writing, as ‘[t]o work with a plan which is pre-set is one way of avoiding subjectivity’ (LeWitt ‘Paragraphs’ 214), while his resistance to humanist subjectivity seems even more relevant. A comparable stance, referring directly to literary work, can be found in Robert Smithson’s 1968 statement ‘Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’: ‘poetry being forever lost must submit to its own vacuity; it is somehow a product of exhaustion rather than creation’ (107).
In his famous defence of Joyce’s Work in Progress, Samuel Beckett argued that ‘[h]ere is direct expression—pages and pages of it’ and chides the reader that ‘[y]ou are not satisfied unless form is so strictly divorced from content that you can comprehend the one almost without bothering to read the other.’
Beckett’s defence of Work in Progress is temporally adaptable to become a slogan for conceptual work in general: ‘[h]ere form is content, content is form [.…] this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. [… this] writing is not about something; it is that something itself’ (502–503).