This is Part 1 of a week long feature on I’ll Drown My Book, the new anthology of women’s conceptual writing out recently from Les Figues Press.
Stay tuned all week for more…
6/4 Monday – Part 1: Review by Janice Lee
6/5 Tuesday – Part 2: Review by Molly Brodak
6/6 Wednesday – Part 3: Review by Nicholas Grider
6/7 Thursday – Part 4: Review by Janey Smith
6/8 Friday – Part 5: Brief interview questions with the anthology’s editors
I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women
Edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, & Vanessa Place
Les Figues Press, 2012
455 pages / $40 Buy from Les Figues Press
The Ghosts of I’ll Drown My Book
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
—Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I
Enter the ghost of conceptual writing, a ghost that cues the gestural fusion of idea with language, the ghost that speaks as a denotative and connotative apparition hiding in a text that is buried alive. There are so many ghosts. They stretch themselves out like a river. I wrap my arms around them. This is how I will drown my book.
I’ll Drown My Book is a new anthology of conceptual writing forthcoming from Les Figues Press, and edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, and Vanessa Place. By collecting recent conceptual writings by women, the anthology opens up an ever-widening discourse: what is conceptual writing really and why conceptual writing now?
As the designer for the book, I have a strange relationship with the text. Kenneth Goldsmith declared that “Conceptual writing treats words as material objects, not simply carriers of meaning.”1 Anthology coeditor Vanessa Place later touches upon this materiality in her Afterword to the anthology:
I have come to consider conceptualism, qua conceptualism, that is, as writing that does not self-interpret, is not self-reflexive, at least not on the page. In other words, writing in which the content does not dictate the content: what appears on the surface of the page is pure textual materiality, no more (and often much less) that what you see on the surface of the page. Conversely, in the way of positive and negative space, conceptualism is also writing in which the context is the primary locus of meaning-making. I have written elsewhere that all conceptualism is allegorical, that is to say, its textual surface (or content) may or may not contain a kind of significance, but this surface significance (or content) is deployed against or within an extra-textual narrative (or contextual content) that is the work’s larger (and infinitely mutable) meaning.3
I hone in on the words on the page, the brickwork, the patterns the bricks make, the aesthetic and physical qualities of the text, the floating words, line breaks, and poems as blocks of text to be remolded and reshaped. Too, I notice where the wall seems to be eroding away, the cracks in the wall where light from another dimension can shine through, and then, I hear the voices emanating through those tears in the wall. The manner in which I arrange the material follows a spectral logic, connecting dots only predicated on the imaginary relations I envision between words, between the words and myself. Because the recent loss of my mother colors the way I perceive the world—the way I interact with time and space and language—what conceptual writing becomes for me is the manifestation of ghosts. I see ghosts everywhere, especially in the margins of altered texts. The ghosts scurry across the tracks of my mind, leaving footprints on the margins of well-traveled memories, but never creeping out into the open. There is a neurological transcendence at work when we interact with poetry, when we interact with concepts and ideas on this level—the ideas that voice themselves when the letters shed off their physical traits. This is not a new-age description of consciousness, but rather a Badiou-ian eventfulness.
The “event” here refers to that which can not be discerned, the conceptual framework that exists outside of language, the point at which one’s mind is most open-minded, “a rupture in ontology, a being-in-itself—through which the subject finds her realization and reconciliation with ‘truth.’”4 Or, the “blind spot” of Derrida’s grammatology5, the shadow of narrative history, a textualized séance, and a “phantasmogenetic center”—that “point in space so modified by the presence of a spirit that it becomes perceptible to persons materially present near it.”6 The ghost lives in and is alive in writing, and the text is the site of its conjuration and activation.
In her introduction, Laynie Browne explains the anthology’s title as a reference to Bernadette Mayer referencing Shakespeare. Browne writes:
The process of opening Mayer to find Shakespeare reframed seems particularly fitting in the sense that conceptual writing often involves a recasting of the familiar and the found. In Mayer’s hands the phrase “I’ll Drown My Book” becomes an unthinkable yet necessary act. This combination of unthinkable, or illogical and necessary or obligatory also speaks to ways that the writers in this collection seek to unhinge and re-examine previous assumptions about writing. Thinking and performance are not separate from process and presentation of works. If a book breathes it can also drown, and in the act of drowning is a willful attempt to create a book which can awake the unexpected—not for the sake of surprise, but because the undertaking was necessary for the writer in order to uproot, dismantle, reforge, remap or find new vantages and entrances to well trodden or well guarded territory.3
I’ll Drown My Book throws itself the face of this intensity, to face the ghosts and “create a book which can awake the unexpected.” The book communicates telepathically, I feel the resonance of the stack of signifiers, see the portals that lead out of language. The horror writer Stephen King considers writing as a form of telepathy, where through the medium of a text, one’s mental state comes to transcend space and time. The text, like a Ghostbusters‘ trap that only temporarily destabilizes a ghost for containment, waits to be reactivated at a different point in the space-time continuum.7 These ghosts have no intention of escaping. The being-drowned is all part of the process of eventual activation.
The way I understand conceptual writing is similar perhaps to Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity—there are moments in space and time where and when the physical world becomes a text to be read out and interpreted, where and when the event is structured not by casual networks of matter but by symbolic references producing meaning. Jeffrey J. Kripal relates these processes of writing and reading to paranormal processes, coining the phrase “authors of the impossible.”8 And it is this reaching for impossibility that for me unites the “beyond” haunting metaphysics and a conceptual writing practice.
The table of contents forces the question of how impossibility unleashes itself on the rest of the anthology. How do modes like constraint-driven process, formulaic structure, appropriation, and intertextual weavings cease or encourage the admission of the ghost? Is every text haunted?
In his introduction to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Kenneth Goldsmith points to the present technological era, stating that, “Faced with an unprecedented amount of available digital text, writing needs to redefine itself to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance.” He continues later, “[N]ever before has language had so much materiality—fluidity, plasticity, malleability—begging to be actively managed by the writer. Before digital language, words were almost always found imprisoned on a page. How different it is today, when digitized language can be poured into any conceivable container.”9 Indeed in this digital age where fish and birds seem to readily fall from the sky and apocalyptic cognition a reflex, conceptual writing attempts to create further distance from self, while at the same time, it “tries to get away from itself by catching up with itself.”10 The transmission of ideas and signals through the internet spotlights the materiality of language—the constant copy and pasting, downloading and uploading of texts and images—but the transmission also encroaches upon a telepathic reality, as the constant “what if” of technology marks “a phantom appearance in thought, the very capability of imagining nonexistence, ghosts, apparitions, and virtuality.”10 In conceptual writing, the ghost is always in the process of returning to the scene of the crime.
The anthology is organized into four categories:
1. Process: Constraint, Mimicry, Mediation, Translative, Versioning
2. Structure: Appropriation, Erasure, Constraint, Formula, Pattern, Palimpsest
3. Matter: Baroque, Hybrid, Generative, Corporeal, Dissensual
4. Event: Documenta, Investigative, Intertextual, Historicism, Speculative
These categories are not hard-line inclusive or exclusive, but rather draw further attention to the elusive definition of conceptual writing. Teresa Carmody, codirector of Les Figues Press, notes, “I’ll Drown My Book is a feminist text in the way it creates a space for multiple and sometimes contradictory perspectives of conceptualism.” Though the bulk of my interaction with this book is through feeling and articulating the contours of letters and spaces on the page, the pieces themselves start to circle around an abiding unity, where more and more the singular-plurality of an individual subject starts to color the consequential writings. M. H. Abrams, on Hegel’s The Phenomenology of the Spirit, describes a world in which Spirit or Mind (Geist) constitutes both subject, and object, as well as the plot of the story. Here, the reader is as much a part of the text as the text is a part of the reader.8 This to me sounds much like the “sobject” of Place and Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms. Poetry is not just a reader acting upon a text, rather both text and reader stand as witness to an act of witnessing, “a caloric substance, immanence with bleached teeth.”2
The anthology’s works beg immanence, breathe specter-ship, and promise allegorical gesture.
Each piece in the anthology is accompanied by a brief author’s defining conceptual writing in relation to her own writing process. In reading these, I think about whether ghosts have reflections in the mirror. When I stand in front of the mirror and recite “Bloody Mary” the appropriate number of times, what I see is my own reflection again staring back at me. So then, when “I am haunted by myself who is haunted by myself who is haunted,”10 how can I step behind the mirror? In each moment that I exist as an “I,” the state is continually haunted by the possibility of possibility.
In their statement, Oana Avasilichioaei and Erín Moure describe the process behind Expeditions of a Chimaera: “Here ‘constraint’ is not simply working with and through some work of Nichita Stânescu or Paul Celan, it is also confrontation with the subjectivity and corporeality of the other: admitting that language takes place outside ‘me’ as an individual and that this is writing too, and is, curiously, “my” writing.”3 Christine Wertheim, too, relates the iteration of the phantom “I”:
If I think of my poetic work as conceptual it is in this sense: it plays with concepts in order to point to the existence of a gap in self-consciousness, a fracture in the self-reflecting I that is its subject. However, what makes the works “conceptual” is not merely that it points to this gap, but that in doing so it points to another gap, that between the concept of a subjective disjunction, its actual existence, and the (im)- possibility of the mind’s capacity to imag(in)e or perceptually grasp this phenomenon.3
The “I” that is neither author, narrator, or reader, but instead a ghost, and also the future anterior self, becomes masked by its mere summoning. Or, “[a]n ‘I’ that functioning as a pure passageway for operations of substitution is not some singular and irreplaceable existence, some subject or life.”10 So, who is it that is addressing you? And when you answer, who is it that voices a reply?
We view these as glimpses of the paradoxical world behind the mirror. As we have come to be aware of how visible light exists as a small increment along a rather large spectrum otherwise invisible to normal perception, so too might we understand how subjectivity manifests itself in a conceptual text. Kim Rosenfield renders the following in her statement:
Walter Benjamin: Meaning resides not simply in the text itself or in the subject matter, but in the human transmission of experience. D. W. Winnicott: The place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment. Sherrie Levine: I like to think of my paintings as membranes permeable from both sides so there is an easy flow between the past and the future, between my history and yours. Kim Rosenfield (the I): I like to think of my experience of language as chronically subjective, both in my creative life as a conceptual poet, and in my other creative life as an analytic psychotherapist. My language encounters are encounters between a subjective “I” and a lesser known “me” or actual multiple “me’s” in addition to encounters between another’s subjective me-ness and their own multiple self-states. Kim Rosenfield (the image): The world of persons is as plastic and varied as people themselves. What has been described here is the world of persons. the one we live in. In it, what I see in you is an image of myself. And what you see in me is an image of you. IT IS A WORLD OF MIRRORS. IT IS A USELESS AND OBSCURING FICTION THAT THERE IS A WORLD.3
And Rachel Blau DuPlessis simultaneously relates, “I am them as female author, simulacrum of authorship throughout history. I am a fake become ghost become real. For now that history is marked by the shadow of me and others like me.”3
The “me” and “others like me” correspond silently and loudly in the ever-arriving space of the book. In her Foreword, Caroline Bergvall writes:
[Kathy] Acker famously proposed a literary mode which only exists through other texts. It twists itself through other texts. The writer conceives of writing as a collated and plagiarized multiplicity. Cultural pillaging provides a poetic trajectory that negates the original authorial voice. The uniqueness of the work is its lack of uniqueness, its negativity. It exists as a mode of textual appropriation, a process of shadowing and transference. This poetic strategy falls in line with broad notions of conceptual practice. Something like Walter Benjamin meets Sherrie Levine. Simultaneously, it is conceived as a salutary way to escape an abject subjectivity, “I was unspeakable.”3
There is so much that is unspeakable, but also the words of so many voices echo in the “just beyond.” In the search for a concrete “I,” we slip, waver, stare at the moon, and make assumptions. A limited view locates ghosts in the past. But it is more precise to say that their roots lie in the future, in a reading not yet realized but being realized presently.
The remnants of “I”/”me” carry over to the selection of works in the anthology. Vanessa Place admits that she does not necessarily see all the writing in this anthology as conceptual writing. When asked about this she responds, “Just as the masculinist tendency towards singularity is admirably clarifying, the feminist preference for multiplicity is commendably cant. On the other hand, singularity is sometimes promiscuous, and multiplicity may lead to monogamy—problems are productive, productivity problematic. Too, I enjoy arguing.”11 Furthermore, Browne describes the solicitation process and shares that many writers declined to submit work because they not consider their work to fall inside the category of conceptual writing.3 The Anthology provides a sort of shelter for assumptions, the literary compulsions of ghosts that change your perspective so that you change your perspective of them. Uncertainty can be anxiety-inducing, but also essential, productive. Browne writes, “I especially appreciate that conceptual writing very often moves outside the realms or the confines of the personal sense of the ‘I’ and is very engaged in questioning assumptions underlying how we use language to perceive and define.”3
The elephant is the elephant: Place aptly uses the parable of five blind men and the elephant (five men “perceive and define” uniquely) to illustrate the proverb that truth is beholden to the eye of the beholder.3 This is true for our interactions with the world at large, but much less so the act of designating conceptual writing and reading a text. Place quotes Schopenhauer, “Through the allegory a concept is always to be signified, and consequently the mind of the beholder is to be drawn away from the expressed perceptible idea to one which is entirely different, abstract and not perceptible, and which lies quite outside the work of art,” and with the guidance of the specters of our imagination, we are returned to the precept:
“Conceptual writing is allegorical writing.”2
Are the ghosts an allegorical device? Or is my seeing ghosts a veridical hallucination8, both hidden and present simultaneously? If my ordinary conceptual system, in terms of how I both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature12, does the paranormal become a metaphorical, allegorical, conceptual, and/or literal way of interacting with the world?
To shift from a paranormal view to a more political one, I close with some hopes for what this anthology may accomplish. With Teresa Carmody, I hold on to the hope for a “shift from numbers to content,” especially in light of the commotion post-VIDA count13 (the blogger Lemon Hound brilliantly delves into the “What now?” and “What if?” on her own blog14).
The ghosts do not deal in numbers themselves, rather they impress upon us projections of our own embedded ideologies and the potential of impossibility. Conceptual writing cannot run from the spectrality of metaphysics. Rather, the materiality of conceptual writing becomes the foundation for the remnants that haunt our writing. There are ghosts in writing everywhere, offering hope or glimpses of apocalyptic cognition. It is the cognitive estrangement that arises out of encounters with ghosts that brings about cognitive change, the paranormal as instigating. A book is drowning, and indeed, there are ghosts. They are everywhere. Already. Always. Will be. Some are mine. Some are yours. Sometimes they meet on pages. What do these encounters look like? They look like this.
1 Sanders, Katherine Elaine. “SO WHAT EXACTLY IS CONCEPTUAL WRITING?: an interview with Kenneth Goldsmith.” BOMBLOG. Oct 2, 2009.
2 Place, Vanessa and Rob Fitterman. Notes on Conceptualisms. Ugly Ducking Presse, 2009.
3 Eds. Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Vanessa Place. “A Conceptual Assemblage: Introduction.” I’ll Drown My Book: Women’s Conceptual Writing. Les Figues Press, forthcoming 2011.
4 Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. Continuum, 2006.
5 Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. John Hopkins University Press, 1998.
6 Myers, Frederic W. H. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903.
7 King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York, Scribner, 2000.
8 Kripal, Jeffrey J. Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
9 Eds. Dworkin, Craig and Kenneth Goldsmith. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Northwestern University Press, 2011.
10 Appelbaum, David. Jacques Derrida’s Ghost. State University of New York Press, 2009.
11 Responses to interview questions, conducted by Janice Lee via email. February 2011.
12 Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, 1980.
13 This refers to “The Count,” VIDA’s annual accounting of women writers published and reviewed at major literary publications.
VIDA. “The Count 2010.” VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. February 2011. http://vidaweb.org/the-count-2010
14 Lemon Hound. “The Gatekeepers and the Glass Ceiling, Notes Toward an Essay on The Count.” Lemon Hound. February 24, 2011.
This review was originally published in Issue 3 of Dear Navigator, an online magazine and publication project for contemporary art and writing at the boundaries. Look for a new project from Dear Navigator‘s founding editors soon and, in the mean time, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.