February 21st, 2011 / 12:27 pm

What is Experimental Literature? {pt. 4}

Because Roxane’s recent post on Davis Schneiderman’s novel Blank engaged so thoughtfully with my ongoing “What is Experimental Literature” series (pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3), I decided to postpone my previously planned posting (which deals with the critical theory of Roland Barthes), and instead directly address Schneiderman’s novel and what I perceive to be Roxane’s basic concern about it: namely, what to do with it.

Unfortunately, my series on experimental literature offered Roxane no help in dealing with Schneiderman’s novel. The reason, I would argue, is that Blank moves out of the boundary zone of experimental literature and into the boundary zone of conceptual literature. The difference between those categories seems just as significant as the distinctions between experimental and conventional literature, and therefore require yet another set of heuristics.

I must say, I love the problems that conceptual literature presents to my attempts at understanding experimental literature. For one thing, it works to disrupt any notion of binary opposition: no longer can anyone mistakenly assume that I’m presenting an either/or when I discuss the relationship between experimental and conventional literature — the spectre of conceptual literature invalidates any such assumption by demonstrating the possibility of other potential categories. For another thing, I think conceptual literature can help to recalibrate our expectations and assumptions about experimental literature.

What follows is my attempt at answering what I perceive to be Roxane’s query regarding Schneiderman’s novel, as well as an attempt to grapple with the differences between conceptual and experimental works.

To begin:

I have often pondered the last sentence in this famous response given by Edward Hopper when asked for his thoughts on abstract painting:

There is a school of painting called abstractionist or non-objective, which is derived largely from the work of Paul Cézanne, that attempts to create “pure painting” – that is an art which will use form, color, and design for their own sakes and independent of man’s experience of life and his association with nature. I do not believe such an aim can be achieved by a human being. Whether we wish it or not, we are all bound to the earth with our experience of life; and the reactions of the mind, heart, and eye and our sensations by no means consist entirely of form, color, and design. We would be leaving out a great deal that I consider worth while expressing in painting, and it cannot be expressed in literature.” [from Gail Levin’s biography of Hopper]

What is the “it” that cannot be expressed in literature? Pure form? Or, human experience that can only be expressed in painting? Or, the idea of design independent of man’s experience? To this day, I can’t figure out what he means. Maybe he’s gesturing toward the division between painting and literature: between each medium’s discursive boundaries? Despite my inability to clearly decipher it, I think there’s something important there.

There’s a there there.

Remember how Gertrude Stein described her hometown of Oakland in Everybody’s Autobiography:

...there is no there there.

Maybe what’s “there” in Stein’s sentiment is at the heart of a potential approach to Davis Schneiderman’s Blank, which is to say: even in the event of there being no “there” there, there is in fact always a “there” there of some kind. Derrida demonstrates this idea — I’ll go there in a minute — but I wanted to return to Hopper for a moment.

Consider his last great painting, painted when he was 81 years old:

Edward Hopper - Sun in an Empty Room (1963)

Like many of Hopper’s greatest works, it presents absence. It suggests questions more intensely than it provides answers. What is this place? It opens possibilities. Where is this place? It opens time. When is this place: the before this instance and the after? It conjures both hopeful and sorrowful emotions and thoughts, as absence often does. Who lived here before and who will live here in the future, who came and went, who loved and hated, who lied and who told the truth?

We perceive Hopper’s canvas to be a place, an interior space. These clues are given, or at least suggested. Thus, we might resist the comparison to Schneiderman’s novel on the grounds that Hopper’s canvas is not blank. There are walls, a window, something outside the space. But what does it mean for something to be blank? I mean, what constitutes the difference between Hopper’s “Sun in an Empty Room” (1963) and Agnes Martin’s “The Desert” (1965)?

Agnes Martin - The Desert (1965)

(side note: According to an article published last year in The Montreal Gazette, Agnes Martin’s seemingly blank canvas, seen above, went to auction and earned “the highest price ever paid for an artwork created by a Canadian painter” — ~$5 million dollars!)

I would argue that neither canvases are truly “blank.” Just as Schneiderman’s novel is not truly blank. Like both of these canvases, Schneiderman’s novel has a frame: it is a book, it has a cover, it has clues that direct the reader toward a particular concept, namely: a novel. So, while the book attempts to present an absence, it is in fact reinscribing a presence.

As it turns out, absence is a hard thing to render.

Recall Derrida’s take on the role of absence as the core of a given system:

The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center.

and how the tension between absence and presence corresponds to the power of freeplay:

Freeplay is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain. Freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence, but if it is to be radically conceived, freeplay must be conceived of before the alternative of presence and absence; being must be conceived of as presence or absence beginning with the possibility of freeplay and not the other way around. (both quotes are from “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”)

In other words, the substance of the artwork is constituted, in part, by the tension between what is there and what is not there.

Consider the opening page of Remy Charlip’s Where is Everybody?:

from a book titled Where is Everybody? by Remy Charlip (1957)

The words ‘Here is an empty sky” create the context that transforms the blank page into a representation. It gives the blank page a frame. Without the words, no context. Without context, confusion. And not only confusion, it is context that separates art from not art. A blank book that does not call itself a novel is merely a notebook or a diary or a journal. But a blank book that contextualizes itself as a novel shifts its ontology: it becomes an art object. This is part of the genius that Marcel Duchamp demonstrated with his infamous urinal sculpture:

Fountain (1917)

By taking the urinal out of its original context and placing it in a new context, Duchamp shifted the object from the realm of utility to the realm of art. He further solidified the demarcation between a urinal and a work of art by placing it sideways and signing it, thereby ensuring it’s unusability and inscribing it, marking it, signaling its difference.

Contemporary artist Nigel Tomm performs a similar move with his film adaptations. Here we see a shot from his 2008 version of Hamlet (the entire silent film is comprised of 63 minutes of pure white screen):

Screenshot from Nigel Tomm's Hamlet (2008)

Calling the film Hamlet makes it something other than nothing. It creates context.

Of course it can also be the case that the context works to confuse rather than inform, in cases of absence. I’m thinking of Yves Klein’s “Le Vide”:

Yves Klein’s Le Vide at Iris Clert Gallery, Paris 1958

Or else it could be that the context is not context, but rather a description. Here I’m thinking of Rauschenberg’s white paintings:

Robert Rauschenberg - White Paintings Three Panel (1951)

and Malevich’s “Suprematist Composition”:

Kazimir Malevich - Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918)

and Ryman’s “All white painting”:

Robert Ryman - An all white painting measuring 9 1/2 x 10 and signed twice on the left... (1961)

In these examples, the title of the work does not necessarily function in the same way as in the previous examples, even though it would seem as though all of these works share a categorical allegiance. These titles describe in literal terms the object of our attention, much like Schneiderman’s novel.

This particular approach of describing the blank object also appears in the field of music. I’m thinking of John Cage’s famous work entitled 4’33” — a three-movement composition that instructs the performer not to play the instrument during the entire duration of the piece: four minutes and thirty-three seconds. When asked to explain the piece, Cage famous said, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.”

Here is a version of its performance, done by David Tudor:


We see in 4’33” the correlation between blankness, absence, and silence. In fact, it is well known that Cage wrote 4’33” under the influence of Rauschenberg’s white paintings (which I showed you above). In a way, Cage’s piece could be seen as an attempt to create a white painting in the field of music: absence of color and shape translated into absence of sound. The “point” of course, is that there is no such thing as absence of sound any more than there is such thing as absence of shape and color. Frames make absence impossible. Context always instantiates boundaries. What is not there will always leave a trace. A perfect illustration of this concept can be seen in the image of a chalk outline:

The silence of that image speaks loudly. The absence it attempts to demarcate only serves to engender a presence.

We return, once again, to the tension between what is there and what is not there.

Before John Cage’s 4’33” there was Erwin Schulhoff’s “In Futurum” (1919). All the notes are rest notes, marked “with feeling.” Here is a page of the sheet music:

the middle movement of Erwin Schulhoff's In futurum (1919)

And here is a performance of it:


Before Schulhoff, there was the French funnyman Alphonse Allais who wrote “Funeral March for the Last Rites of a Deaf Man” (1897)

Alphonse Allais - Funeral March for the Last Rites of a Deaf Man (1897)

Allais also created blank canvasses that relied on the context of their titles to give them gravity, such as his 1883 work “First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls In The Snow”:

Alphonse Allais - First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls In The Snow (1883)

I share these precursors to indicate a genealogy, to place Schneiderman’s novel in historical and interdisciplinary context, to show that his book enters into an ongoing conversation. In fact, Schneiderman’s novel imbricates several ongoing conversations.  It would stand to reason that making these connections could in fact help us determine what to do with Blank, or how to think about Blank, or how to most effectively engage with Blank.

One of the ongoing conversations Blank is involved in is about conceptual art. American artist Sol Lewitt outlined the tenants of conceptual art in his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art ” (1967) and his “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (1969), where he claimed:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. [full text here]

In other words, the art object itself is not the final location of engagement, but instead should be seen as the catalyst to questions or ideas beyond the object itself. To give you an example that seems to coincide with our topic of absence or blankness, consider Doris Salcedo’s sculpture entitled “Shibboleth”:

Doris Salcedo - Shibboleth (2007)

Instead of introducing new material into the space, Salcedo broke open the floor of the museum. As the Tate Modern explains it: “Shibboleth asks questions about the interaction of sculpture and space, about architecture and the values it enshrines, and about the shaky ideological foundations on which Western notions of modernity are built.” Thus, the artwork is not about the artwork, per se, but instead is about the concepts or questions the artwork raises.

Perhaps Schneiderman’s novel wants to encourage a similar function? Perhaps the novel is not the most important aspect of the work; maybe the conversations, questions, reactions engendered by the object of the novel are more important.

This brings me to another of the ongoing conversations with which Schneiderman’s novel engages: conceptual poetics, or conceptual literature. Kenneth Goldsmith offers these words toward a definition:

Conceptual writing is more interested in a thinkership rather than a readership. Readability is the last thing on this poetry’s mind. Conceptual writing is good only when the idea is good; often, the idea is much more interesting than the resultant texts. [full text]

Vanessa Place echoes Goldsmith, and offers practical examples as well as helpful elaboration:

In much conceptual poetry there is no critical reading per se, because the materiality of the text is entirely surface, sometimes mirrored, like 80s apartment walls. For example, there is no “reading” of a work such as Rob Fitterman’s “Mall Directory,” a list of stores in a galleria,10 or Craig Dworkin’s “Fact,” a composition on composition in which the chemical composition of the material in which the piece is materialized is itemized, or Steven Zultanski’s Pad, a litany of every single thing in and constituting his apartment, and whether or not his dick can lift it. There is nothing to be mined from these texts, no points of constellation or dilation, no subject within which to squat. The text object simply is. The reader is, but is irrelevant. But the thinker becomes quite important. There is no direction for this thinker, no spots to think to or horizons to muse toward, but there is a place upon which to think.11 [full text]

In a very real sense, I think the project of conceptual literature differs from the project of experimental literature by virtue of the fact that experimental literature (unlike conceptual literature) wants/needs to be read. As I have argued and will continue to argue, one cannot attempt to engage with experimental literature in the same way one attempts to engage with conventional literature. They require different skills, tools, strategies. But, experimental literature is not primarily about ideas or concepts in the same way as conceptual literature. Instead, experimental literature shares a strong affinity with conventional literature: it requires readership, thus it requires the presence of text and it requires that the substance of the text be integral to the experience of the artwork. Put another way, the text matters. For conceptual literature, it would seem that the text itself hardly matters.


  1. nliu

      Good post. There’s an even better Goldsmith quote from a Jacket interview: “These books are impossible to read. I hate reading them myself. But they’re great to talk about!”

      Surely Vanessa Place misspeaks re: Zultanski’s Pad. A text which includes sentences like “My dick can lift the lift the ex-girlfriend’s light-blue ‘J’adore Bardot!’ t-shirt” and “My dick can lift the book The Sex Which is Not One by Luce Irigary” doesn’t belong in the same category as Mall Directory and Fact or (most of) Goldsmith’s work. These lines declare their meant-to-be-readness.

      One thing doesn’t sit right with me. “A blank book that does not call itself a novel is merely a notebook or a diary or a journal. But a blank book that contextualizes itself as a novel shifts its ontology: it becomes an art object.” This seems needlessly conservative: the artist (or something in the artwork itself) must be the one who calls it art in order to trigger this ontological shift. But why? If all that’s needed to provide that context is for them to be spoken of as art objects, then these notebooks and diaries and journals are already art. We just don’t know it yet.

  2. nliu

      Good post. There’s an even better Goldsmith quote from a Jacket interview: “These books are impossible to read. I hate reading them myself. But they’re great to talk about!”

      Surely Vanessa Place misspeaks re: Zultanski’s Pad. A text which includes sentences like “My dick can lift the lift the ex-girlfriend’s light-blue ‘J’adore Bardot!’ t-shirt” and “My dick can lift the book The Sex Which is Not One by Luce Irigary” doesn’t belong in the same category as Mall Directory and Fact or (most of) Goldsmith’s work. These lines declare their meant-to-be-readness.

      One thing doesn’t sit right with me. “A blank book that does not call itself a novel is merely a notebook or a diary or a journal. But a blank book that contextualizes itself as a novel shifts its ontology: it becomes an art object.” This seems needlessly conservative: the artist (or something in the artwork itself) must be the one who calls it art in order to trigger this ontological shift. But why? If all that’s needed to provide that context is for them to be spoken of as art objects, then these notebooks and diaries and journals are already art. We just don’t know it yet.

  3. tomk

      How does the production of conceptual literature, it’s possibility to be copied as opposed to conceptual art works trend towards an authenticated singularity…it’s value in some way dependent on it, at least commercially, impact upon conceptual literatures effectiveness? Why produce more than one?
      Does much conceptual literature play or interact with that difference? The concept isn’t objectified into the value of a thing but at the same time if it only needs one instance of proof (the concept embodied) what does the production of conceptual literature provide?
      The fact that blank is, if not mass produced but repetitively produced seems like an interesting thing to think about.

      I’m not entirely sure what i mean.

  4. tomk

      I’m not meaning to come off critical in anyway im just kinda interested and want to interact though im probably doing it very clumsily.

  5. KXF

      What dissolves the binary between experimental and conventional literature may be the orientation of creation under the yoke of the culture industry as Adorno renders it, and the fact that every work of literature is by definition an experiment (even in the most formulaic genre, there is some degree of experimentation that takes place in the substitution of components to fit that normative framework). By assigning a genre of work the label of experimental is to grant it a kind of canonical status that may excuse it from not being popular and thus justify that it does not conform to majority taste (which is, again, largely dictated by the spectacle and the culture industry). The danger is in posing the very term experimental literature as an oppositional frame against conventional literature. This simply replays a static dialectic, thus reinforcing the legitimacy of that dialectic. It is somewhat similar to why those like Foucault and Deleuze decided to “forget” Hegel rather than confront him, for to oppose Hegel is to confirm him since one is dragged into his arena and subjugated under the rule of the dialectic!

  6. M. Kitchell

      Dig it. I read Roxane’s post and the first thing I thought of was “oh I should post that video of 4’33” being performed” but then next time i looked at the post there were 100 comments and i didn’t have the attention span (hellooooo weekend) to deal with reading them all.

      I think this is a good frame for contextualizing the novel, but I still question the inclusion of the images in Schneiderman’s novel (which, i haven’t seen)– the inclusion as such seems to work against the conceptual idea behind the text. i wonder if it’s a sort of concession from the publisher to the not-as-well-equipped customer? “well, the text might be blank, but look! there’s images!” maybe this was discussed on roxane’s post, who knows.

      i obsess over klein’s voids (have you seen this catalog? i haven’t read it but i’ve looked through it at the library, seems real nice), and the conception of “the void” itself. i hate humor in art tho, so schneiderman’s ironic chapter titles seems (well, to be honest it seems kind of “on the offense”/too obvious) like it removes it from the conception of nothingness

      [speaking of the blank screen, i assume you’re also familiar with debords ‘hurlements en faveur de sade,’ which works with a blank screen in a different manner (http://www.ubu.com/film/debord_hurlements.html)]

      anyway, i think i had some sort of question here but i forgot what it was


      oulipo/constraint based writing, etc
      i feel like that highlights a very specific crossover between conceptual/experimental/conventional literature often

      a) conceptual because, in the oulipo compendium authors do comment often that the constraint (the idea) is the generative element of the text, not any narrative

      b) experimental because well, clearly, oulipian/constraint-based texts are literally “an experiment”

      c) conventional, often the writing within said constraints falls into the realm of conventional narratives/plottings/etc [i.e. if the constraint is unknown there is nothing that diverges from the realm of convention, perhaps?]

  7. KXF

      And, speaking of the transposition of context (esp. in regards the urinal), one of the useful conceptual tools Deleuze and Guattari give us in Mille Plateaux is the idea of de/re-territorialization which allows us to create a kind of palimpsest over one regime of value with another (the act of de/re-territorialization is a simultaneous process akin to Nietzsche’s act of destruction and creation). The problem with the re-assigning of the use value of the urinal happens to be how (again) that nefarious culture industry incorporates what has been excorporated (John Fiske’s term) as an object of exchange value. That is, the urinal now becomes embedded within the art industry’s speculative market, thus reduced to its economic value as an object of investment for collectors.

  8. Joseph Young
  9. Nate

      Freeplay = Poetry

  10. kb

      I think philosophy does philosophy better than art does. When we’re ready to leave philosophy behind (go beyond it), however, we turn to art. Philosophy of art is reductive in that it reduces experience to concept. What I mean, I think, is that anything you say about literature (or whathaveyou) is not / could never be, the literature. Chaos theory stuff, you turned it into something else by poking around. You’ve translated a phantom that speaks only directly (in an indirect manner) into a colletion of interconnected objects (make them as ‘rhizomic’ as you please, still a botch, ultimately).

      General feeling. Theory is entertaining though, and I like it / read it.

  11. nliu

      Not sure I’d agree re: Oulipo. It’s clear enough how its experimental and conventional elements intersect, but where’s the “conceptual” come in? Isn’t “unreadability”–or at least, the fact that reading/looking at the thing, if there is a thing to be read/looked at, is in some sense optional to experiencing it–basic to the definition of conceptual art? I can’t think of any Oulipo work that satisfies that definition. You don’t grok La Disparition just by glancing at the back of the book jacket.

  12. Tim Horvath

      Chris, lively and engaging as always. I really like how you’ve placed Drain in a lineage, a blankology of sorts. Silences always belong to a conversation. In the case of the “Hamlet” film, for instance, I am led to think about the malleability of the play itself, the idea that it is reinterpreted, adapted, stretched, abused, and then led to think about the status of the play, what makes it “Hamlet” and so forth. Not to mention that it’s a pretty good joke on the last line, “The rest is silence.” In the case of Blank, it seems to me that the book is more powerful in light of Schneiderman’s previous novel, Drain, which also plays with notions of fullness/repleteness/presence and absence/loss, and which would more likely, in your schema, be classified as experimental, though I’m not sure (there is a plot, a storyline, characters, though its language onslaught seems paramount). Cage’s piece, apart from being a response to the context of performance of classical music and all of the formal conventions that we bring to that seems also to relate to his fascination with zen…which makes me wonder about what different performers of it think about or have thought about as they play it. Somehow related to me is that I am unable to write against a completely blank background (not there is such a thing, of course, it is an illusion of pixelated light). Utter blankness is alternately terrifying and boring, or what is most terrifying is when the terrifying becomes boring.

  13. nliu

      Is any cognitive act not reductive (even if it is also expansive)? You can’t even look at a painting without reducing it to a smaller set of elements than is there to be seen.

      “Reduces experience to concept” sounds like something a certain sort of art might (try to) do.

  14. Roxane

      Thanks for writing this Chris. I’ve read it twice and you really have given me some tools to better think through Davis’s books. I was particularly interested in what you said about how the title informs our interpretation of the work and ways of representing absence. Until I read this book , and the ensuing discussion on my post, I hadn’t really thought about absence and ways of revealing absence and how we probably can’t truly represent absence, etc. There is so much to think about her. I really appreciate this post.

  15. M. Kitchell

      Naw dogg, the ‘unreadability’ is symptomatic of conceptual writing, not inherent to it. For instance, I think there is even some aesthetic presence to be found in the writing itself when considering conceptual writing (as above, where you point out that Pad is a joy to read)– I really enjoy listening to Vanessa Place read her lists, her “Statements of Fact.”

      But I don’t think that’s the point– I think, as Higgs lays it out above (the definition would diverge, of course, if we’re sticking to definitions established in Place & Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms), part of what is inherent to conceptual writing is that the idea is more important than the content. Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes strikes me as simultaneously flarfist & conceptual– surely the idea of the infinitely permeable poem, the concept of the mutability of the lines takes precedence over the act of actually reading every single variation of the poem, or even what “happens” in the poem (though I think Higgs is more concerned with fiction than poetry, as, of course, an historical approach to poetry would net far more “canonical” experimentation than in fiction), etc etc etc. I can’t think of them off the top of my head, and I don’t have my copy of the Oulipo Compendium with me to look it up because I’m at work, but I remember there being quite a few constraints set forward which clearly privilege idea over the writing that would follow.

  16. M. Kitchell

      the thing is, upon duchamp’s initial ‘re-territorialization’/appropriation of the urinal, it was specifically something that was not ‘commodifiable’ (he blew minds man), it was a specific, hilarious, important ‘fuck you’ to the exchange value of the art object. of course, now that’s no longer true as duchamp has been assimilated into the contemporary headspace of ‘what is art’ and ‘how does it work,’ but that’s a point for another post i guess

  17. nliu

      But Lewitt’s definition, which this post uses, doesn’t only entail privileging the concept, but privileging the concept to the point where the execution exists only because it’s (felt to be) obligatory: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that *all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair*. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Which Oulipoist would agree to that? (I admit it, I’m only familiar with the big names, supplemented with whatever wikipedia can tell me.) Even Queneau’s sonnets were meant to be read–you can’t read them all, but read any possible combination and you get an experiencable poem–and questions of execution were far from predetermined. The concept is of interest, but the aesthetic problem of realising the concept is, IMO, equally so. Queneau would likely agree, since, for him, Oulipoists were “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape”. The escape is half the point.

      And really, those sonnets seem to me to be pretty atypical of Oulipo. Exercises in Style is made to be read. So is Life: A User’s Manual, and A Void, and everything Calvino ever wrote. Even if I grant that “‘unreadability’ is symptomatic of conceptual writing, not inherent to it”, the fact that most Oulipo writing militates on behalf of the reading act–or more precisely the writing act–makes it hard for me to see how it intersects meaningfully with conceptual art/writing. If the only thing the two have in common is the importance of the generative concept, doesn’t “experimental” already have that covered?

  18. M. Kitchell

      I don’t think there’s necessarily some ultimate decision that can be made regarding whether or not the OuLiPo’s oeuvre can ‘categorically’ be referred to as conceptual, but I think it’s interesting to lump it as such because it allows the body of work to be looked at as utterly heterogeneous (and the heterogeneous text is a primary interest of mine).

      Also, perhaps my insistence on the inclusion within a categorical definition of conceptualism (I doubt Fitterman/Place or Lewitt or Kenny Goldsmith would let it in, but maybe, I mean even Ariana Reines has work in the new Against Expression anthology) is based on my purely aesthetic appreciation of conceptual art: the aesthetics of the documentation offered of the conceptual art of the 60s is honestly some of the most visually exciting [images] in the world to me, to the point where the concept itself becomes unimportant. I think this presses towards the idea that, of course, appreciation of the text (here used in that convenient critical theory way) comes after the decision as to whether or not something is conceptual.

      Also, yeah, I mean I think experimental does, in a way, have that covered, I just like (as I said) highlighting the way things can intersect.

  19. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks, nliu,

      Your question about origin is a good one, a problematic one, but a good one. Maybe part of it has to do with inscription, with being marked. It’s not enough for them to be “spoken of” as art objects, as you suggest, they must actually be marked as such. Prior to the inscription the object remains immanently art, but in immanence we can recognize only potentiality. Does that make sense? The shift happens at the moment of transformation from the plane of immanence to the plane of consistency, i.e. the moment the object becomes legible. Or so goes my working theory. Hopefully that helps to clarify?

  20. Christopher Higgs

      Hey, tomk. Thanks for your comments and questions.

      I’m really intrigued by your question regarding conceptual writing: “Why produce more than one?” It almost seems like you could be offering a kind of Benjaminian argument for the aura of the conceptual piece, which has a bunch very interesting possibilities. I’m assuming you’ve read “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” — which is where I’m pulling this from. You’ve brought a really interesting element into this conversation. Perhaps another distinction to be made between experimental literature and conceptual literature can be found in the absence or presence of an aura — in the Benjaminian sense?

  21. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, KXF,

      Glad, as always, to see Deleuze come into the conversation. As you will note from the intro of this piece and in the previous parts of this series, I am not in favor of the dialectic, and I’m not in favor of framing categories in opposition with one another. My project is much more aligned with the Deleuzian project of mapping intensities, describing assemblages, charting deterritorialization, etcetera.

  22. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks, Joseph. That Friedman is a great addition. I wasn’t familiar with it.

  23. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks, Joseph. That Friedman is a great addition. I wasn’t familiar with it.

  24. Dan Green

      Perhaps the comparison with Cage is the most apropos. Cage wanted us to reflect on our own role in listening to music: we ourselves help to make the “music” we hear. Could Schneiderman’s book be asking something similar: what is our role as readers in constructing the “work”? What is most absent in this case is precisely that work we do as readers, or so it might seem to us in first encountering such a book.

  25. deadgod


      – so the ‘problem’ nliu indicates obtains, but the problem is with “ontology”, rather than “object” or “art”.

      “Context” doesn’t entail a shift in ontological status, but rather in phenomenological attendance: the imposition of definitions – perhaps an imposition intrinsic to linguistically mediated perception itself – on intractably discovered material.

  26. deadgod

      What makes you think the chapter titles are “ironic”? They tell a story with some completeness, and the Table of Contents is easily re-branded as a ‘poem’.

      The blankness of Blank, in whatever way the thing ‘is’ “blank”, is related somehow to the narration (and photographs) it contains and discloses as (parts of) itself.

  27. deadgod

      absence is a hard thing to render

      You know when you point at the moon to get a dog to look at it, and Bowser looks expectantly at your hand? This quadrilateralization is how words happen.

      Words of negation complicate the process of linguisticality by ‘subtracting the moon’ absolutely.


      For the listener, who listens in the snow,
      And, nothing himself, beholds
      Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.

  28. deadgod


      the spectre of conceptual literature invalidates any such assumption [of the absolute non-predicability of conventional and experimental literatures of the same object] by demonstrating the possibility of other potential categories

      As a matter of rationality, this invalidation is not so.

      The fact of binary incompatibility of categories doesn’t rule out third, fourth, etc. categories that cut across the absolute difference of members of the two absolutely ‘opposed’ categories. – so long as the differentiae that distinguish the third, fourth, etc. categories are not substantially predicated of either of the binarily opposed categories.

      This objection is strictly logical; in the case of the (limited) substance “literature”, it’s been successfully – to my mind: incontrovertibly – argued that “conventional” and “experimental” co-exist, albeit tensely, in all literature. That tension marks a valid distinction, but not an absolute one. Both or neither (or, for limited, practical purposes, either) could co-exist in a piece of writing with “conceptual”.]

  29. deadgod

      [T]he [conceptual] art object itself is not the final location of engagement, but instead should be seen as the catalyst to questions or ideas beyond the object itself.

      Rather than the ‘perfunctoriness’ of the object’s execution, I’d emphasize the imperviousness of the circuit ‘idea-execution-object-ideas object provokes’.

      In “conventional” and (most) “experimental” art both, the “art object” is also – I’d say: even less – “not the final location of engagement”.

      In literature that’s not, or not predominantly, “conceptual”, the reader ‘is leapt away from’ any circuit of ‘idea-execution-object’ – an aspect of the intentionality of the object is that participants with it are ‘referred away from’ it, rather than, as with “conceptual” pieces, pulled mostly into the circuit of the object’s realization.

  30. M. Kitchell

      Well, like I said, I haven’t seen the book, and I’d like to, because I’m definitely interested in the intersection of the blank text & the images, and how overall it works as a book qua book.

      The chapter titles, based on the few that Roxane named, strike me as being like an obvious “fuck you” to an homogenous narrative structure, and frankly, subjectively, I just don’t like anything that’s “obvious”

  31. M. Kitchell

      Well, like I said, I haven’t seen the book, and I’d like to, because I’m definitely interested in the intersection of the blank text & the images, and how overall it works as a book qua book.

      The chapter titles, based on the few that Roxane named, strike me as being like an obvious “fuck you” to an homogenous narrative structure, and frankly, subjectively, I just don’t like anything that’s “obvious”

  32. Christopher Higgs

      Hey, Mike.

      I have this weird thing where I have never been able to get into Guy Debord. That film you link to…I wish the whole 63 minutes was the white screen and noises.

      That catalog you link to looks freaking awesome! I’ve seen you mention how you look at catalogs like those, and I’m envious. i don’t know anything about those things: where to go about finding them, how to look for them, etc. It’s like a whole field of potential coolness I would love to learn about.

      Oulipo is certainly an interesting case study. I’ve written a bit about them, but never in terms of their relationship to either experimental or conceptual writing. I will give more thought, but my gut reaction is that you are on to something with this idea of them as a potential bridge — I’m thinking of Perec’s A Void, which seems like both a conceptual work and an experimental work. You know, the more I think about it, I think Kyle Minor asked me about Oulipo’s relationship to experimental lit. in an earlier post, when I had tried to link experimental lit. with a tendency toward chaos. Okay, okay. I’ve got to get to thinking about this.


  33. Christopher Higgs

      Hey, Tim. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful response.

      It’s amazing how many different versions of 4’33” you can find on you tube. There’s a bunch; and as you say, I can’t help but think that each of them approach it with a different context. In a way, the fact that the context shifts, or, can shift, without changing the content of the piece is very interesting.

  34. Christopher Higgs

      My pleasure, Roxane. I was really thrilled to read your post, to hear that you’d considered my ideas about experimental lit with such care. Thank you.

  35. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Dan.

      I think you are certainly on to something with this idea that Schneiderman’s book might be asking us as readers to consider our role in constructing the book. Coincidentally, as I mention at the beginning of this post, I had intended to put up some thoughts about a few of Barthes’s ideas that seem to directly pertain to experimental literature — one of which was his distinction between readerly/writerly texts, which seems quite apropos. Inspired by your comment, I will try to make the connection with Blank when I do end up posting it.


  36. Rest


  37. Ian

      Cocteau featured a blank book in 1949’s Orpheus.

  38. OBarrett

      Thanks for this great post and all the great comments.

      Tim’s comment about the relation between Schneiderman’s Blank and Drain seems particularly useful, especially given the other comment regarding conceptual literature–in its proliferation, albeit limited–in comparison to conceptual art.

      The reviews of Drain, which I’ve read, at times have stressed the text’s “density” and “materiality”–but of course in that “experimental” work, those facets are figurative. The text is physically all but the same to the Glenn Beck novel that Schneiderman read from at AWP.

      Blank, though, seems to be an extension of the emptiness of Drain–where Lake Michigan is emptied of water–and treats a similar theme in a material way.

      What about this?

      Oulipian contraint-based works often set a series of rules or limits = Drain, in comparison to conventional novels. The content is what differentiates its from Glenn Beck, and its materiality is metonymic or metaphorical.

      Oulipian procedural texts are produced through a specific set of methodologies (write a line of poetry at each metro stop, etc) = Blank. The concept, before the “text,” proves generative to the object. Yes, most of the Oulipo procedures produce content, but here, maybe?, Schneiderman uses it to produce a materiality which also references his last novel…

  39. nliu

      It does. I’m interested, though, in hearing a little more about what it means to be “marked as such”. What sort of relationship between inscription and inscribed are we talking about here? When is speaking of X as Y an inscription and when is it not? A concrete example: if Blank had been an actual blank book–say, an unaltered notebook or diary–marketed and sold as a novel, would that be sufficient to mark it?

      Sorry to bombard you with questions like this. It’s an interesting topic.

  40. nliu

      I get you. Thanks for that.

      P.S. Thanks, too, for mentioning Salcedo’s Shibboleth, a fascinating work that I probably wouldn’t have heard of otherwise.

  41. nliu

      Stupid me. The post is by Higgs, so I should be thanking him for Shibboleth. Got so lost in the comments that I forgot.

  42. nliu

      I like that. Is it your own formulation?

  43. deadgod

      Not sure which “formulation” you mean. In the post you append immediately to, the only thing which isn’t in my words is the ostensible paraphrase quoted from the blogicle. Do you mean the terminology of ‘circuitry’, the reference to “conceptual art” as a kind of (mostly) closed circuit?

  44. nliu

      Yes, that, and the observation that the art object is even less the final location of engagement in conventional art. It sounds obvious once you put it that way, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to do so.

  45. Vhvhg


  46. M. Kitchell

      Haha no worries, I figured that’s what you meant!

  47. John Minichillo

      For myself, at least, I need to know when a conceptual piece was composed before I feel I can have an appropriate reaction to it. For whatever reason, I’m more impressed by a conceptual piece from 1888 or even 1918 and possibly 1951 than, say 2011. I guess it doesn’t seem all that creative to me, in 2011, to put out a blank book. These other artists, when I try to contextualize what else was going on at the time, the idea / the concept stands out as more revolutionary, more interesting, maybe even more necessary.

      What concepts / ideas fit our contemporary moment? Maybe this isn’t the most productive way to think of it, but I don’t have to appreciate a particular piece just because I understand what it is doing. It is still working within a medium, and how does it address / make use of / redefine that medium? How will this artist anticipate and counter my inclination that they are being lazy / pulling one over on us? In what ways does it function as art, not just as idea?

  48. OBarrett

      John–interesting point, but I expect that your notion of “creativity” especially given words such as “lazy” differ quite a bit from how these types of writers and artists would conceive of these projects in 2011.

      Also, the Allais works, from so long, would strike me as more “jokey” than Goldsmith, Place, Schneiderman, et al.

      See the discussions already embedded here about the relation between art/idea. You are asking for presence, it seems.

  49. John Minichillo

      No, I think that sounds about right. That in 2011 the concept would almost necessarily include some sense of irony or even post-irony.

      As for the response to conceptual art as “lazy,” I don’t think I’m out of line here for suggesting it as a common experience. I think it’s at the fore, and it’s the artists’ job to somehow head that off at the pass. Even well-educated consumers of art are not going to automatically accept or appreciate a piece based on concept alone. How is that concept realized?

      Absence can only be suggested by presence. The ‘rests’ written on a musical composition – they are there. The frame around a white painting – it has presence.

      With respect to the year of composition. How many times can someone compose a piece made entirely of rests, or of white canvas, or of white pages, before the common ‘so what’ response is allowed to creep into the intellectual conversation.

      Roxane felt duped. She bought an empty book and wanted to better understand why she should appreciate this book. But I suspect that nagging notion will remain no matter how many fellow artists rush to defend the empty book. This is a legitimate and real response despite the context and history of conceptual art.

  50. OBarrett


      I see your perspective, but will quibble with a few points here. The main post by Christopher is useful is providing possible heuristics for understanding how one might view Blank.

      To what extent is appreciation or acceptance necessary when dealing with Blank? For the Glenn Beck novel to be successful, for example, readers must buy the book. It doesn’t matter so much whether they read it, but I assume his published wishes to make money on the deal.

      Here, we have all sorts of discussion about Blank, and many commentators have not actually seen the object. No matter, we can discuss it because the concept has been outlined here. Those that buy the object probably know what they are getting and like it. Great.

      Those that don’t purchase it can talk about it or not.

      I’m not sure Roxane still feels “duped”–as her comments on her post and this one suggest that she has found the discussion useful. Also, I stated in comments to the other post, there is very little chance of someone buying Blank and not knowing what it is ahead of time.

      When people accuse the author of being “lazy” because the text is blank, well, that ignores almost everything Christopher offers about these works. Also, it’s not easy feat to make a book–or determine its presentation as a conceptual work–regardless of the content being there or not. There is plenty of content to Blank, just not the same as in Glenn Beck.

      This is not some great con–a useless product that is different to the public as a miracle cure for cancer, for instance. It’s just a piece of conceptual art that raises the questions we’ve been discussing.

      You are free not to like it, but the idea that this is lazy or there to put one over on everyone is not, imho, evident in anything but the reactions of those who remain steeped–and this is perfectly ok–in a more-Romantic tradition of authorship.

      I wonder also, and I just found a Schneiderman post about the publicity for Blank:


      …whether some of this is not an issue of jealousy–not on your part–but on the part of some people who think, shit, why can’t I do that? or, as Schneiderman notes in TNB:

      “23. After the event, still panting, I overhear a gaggle of graduate students discussing the reading, one particularly disgruntled. He turns in surprise to see me, and one of his compatriots joyfully shouts that the disgruntled type says that no one will publish his novel, but you are able to get a blank novel, with nothing in it. Shit!”

      “How many times can someone compose a piece made entirely of rests, or of white canvas, or of white pages, before the common ‘so what’ response is allowed to creep into the intellectual conversation.”

      Well,,, these are each different works. The conditions of the market at the time of comppsition, aside from the things that make Blank different (the images, the chapter titles), all play into this.

      Just as I imagine the next Glenn Beck book will be different than the last, to some extent.

  51. John Minichillo

      OK, so you’re questioning my motives when all I’m doing is speaking common concerns. These aren’t necessarily my concerns but they are out there, and those graduate students, they have the right to react to the book in such a way. They aren’t dummies. They aren’t naive. But your post seems pretty defensive. You seem pretty well invested in this book. Obviously anyone who is willing to put their name on a blank novel must be prepared for such a response. Does one automatically dismiss criticism of the work as lowbrow or not understanding it for what it is? I think most readers are smart enough to get it. Getting it shouldn’t make it immune to criticism.

      I’m not accusing this particular author or any conceptual artist as being lazy. I wrote it in quotes to create a distance between myself and that common perception. I am only suggesting that a common perception like this shouldn’t be wholly ignored. It is a legitimate criticism that should be allowed some space in the conversation.

      And I don’t think you really need to dumb things down with the Glenn Beck example. The relationship between art and the market, or the book-object and the market is well established.

      I have a different kind of novel coming out. I know there’s room on the shelf for this book alongside my book. I’m not threatened by or jealous of this book in any way. I wrote a book that will stand on it’s own, will receive it’s own criticism, and will succeed or fail based on its own merits. I will work hard to help my book sell just as Schneidermann will / has by writing for the TNB and by giving readings. I don’t really not like it or like his book or conceptual art one way or the other.

      But I will say I’m not impressed by a blank novel in 2011. As a piece of conceptual art – the recognition of and being impressed by the idea / concept is kind of the foundation of it’s reception. For me at least, it fails on its own terms.

  52. John Minichillo

      Oh wait, I see now how Glenn Beck relates to a previous book.

  53. OBarrett

      thanks for the thoughtful reply…and i want to quickly add a bit more.

      the glenn beck thing was not to dumb down the argument but a reference to the fact that Schneiderman read from Becks new book at AWP, for his reading from Blank. Sorry, I wrongly assumed you have maybe seen this in the comments to Roxane’s original post.

      i agree that anyone putting their name on a book like this has to be ready for the reaction of those grad stuents or the position i guess you are taking. what i am getting at is how i think this project is different than the other blank or white or blank-like art that Christopher traces.

      it seems to me that the conditions of the moment are so different–look at how we can talk about this book and find all this information about it, etc—almost instantaneously, and how a writer like Schneiderman who publishes or at least has published more “traditional” work on the web….how all of this expands on the art work itself, either regular old book or conceptual work.

      there is a system of associations available here that were not available in the past with the same technological interconnection (will this be the first blank e-book?). so, and this is where i think we disagree, conceptual work is not predicated, or at least not solely, on readers being “impressed”. look at something similar but not the same–flarf: deliberately bad poetry. unless we are impressed by badness, being impressed is not the main thrust of the work.

      i don’t think the terms of the book here are really limited to its own terms, pe se, although yes, we can disagree.

      i am not invested in Blank, really, either, just intrigued by it and looking forward to receiving my copy. i am invested definitely, though, in conceptual works and experimental works and even good old realism. i don’t want to be dismissive of any of this out of hand or based upon the fact that ‘it’s been done before’.

      hence, Glenn Beck as the example. if we hold realism to the same standards that we might hold conceptual work (“it should be new”), then most realism is derivative, even most conventional literary work (much of which I enjoy).

      I see nuances, differences, in many conventional works even when the tradition is well established. That’s why I like Higgs’ attempt to place Blank in a tradition. i don’t think the necessary reaction is, ‘oh, that’s been done” but i am interested in the “why is it being done now, in this way….”?

      Congrats on your novel, also, yes, room for everything. you are a smart commenter and so i want to check that out too. what’s it called and when will it be released. my ten second google search came up dry.

  54. John Minichillo

      Yes, Chris did a great job on this post and took the time to set these works side by side in a way that demonstrates a love for these works, and that really commands a respect for them.

      For example, I’ve never seen a “silent” piece written out in this way – and it’s quite arresting.

      Likewise, you’ve shown a lot of patience with me. I join these conversations bit don’t pretend to keep up with the indie book scene the way these folks do.

      It’s interesting your very interest – the contemporary moment – is the same as my resistance. So maybe I should withhold judgment and see how it lands.

      My book, The Snow Whale, is out in July. It’s not realism per se, but in that space somewhere between satire and the yearning for genuine experience. ALOT of people turned it down, and there will be readers who won’t be on board. But I found a publisher, Atticus Books, and having someone invest in and believe in the book is something I am glad Schneiderman has also found, even if I probably won’t be buying it. Having someone with the power to publish smile on your work is the first step toward legitimacy, and a book is a book is a book. So good for us, and good for Glenn Beck too (OK I didn’t mean that last part ).

  55. OBarrett

      happy agreement all around!

  56. William VanDenBerg

      I was going to indicate that Schniederman’s book is unique in that there are many copies of it, but was shocked to find the large number of versions of 4’33” on Itunes. It’s one of Cage’s best sellers. Which is strange and fascinating.

      Cage’s best selling album currently is an album of 4’33” remixes.

  57. William VanDenBerg

      I’d disagree on the conventional claim. Yes, they do often use straightforward narratives (Zazie in the Metro, We Always Treat Women Too Well), but they use narrative inside of that experimental form, commenting on and rearranging familiar structures.

      We Always Treat Women Too Well, if read without knowledge that Queneau wrote it, begins like a straightforward, smutty, exploitation novel, but it is intended to comment on similar books of the time Knowing this enables the narrative make sense. And the concept of having a key to a book seems very experimental.

      It’s a good try, but I don’t think a work can be experimental and conventional at the same time. Please proceed to prove me wrong.

  58. John Domini

      Thanks, Chris, & my compliments. Thoughtful stuff, really. Myself, I haven’t got much to add, except to say that any consideration of the blank & silent in literature takes us to Beckett (a name absent from these posts, or am I wrong?), & any consideration of Beckett takes us to the question of irony. Beckett depends on irony, his leap to greatness in the trilogy taking off from a neck-in-the-noose refutation of all that social realism had relied on. A number of posts above have mentioned irony, to be sure, & there are more examples I could sling around, Sorrentino, others, but the overriding mode of irony remains verbal. It’s all about the words, what we call “experimental,” even when (as in a number of cases) the spaces between the words make a difference in the affect & the significance. In fiction & especially the novel, given the Aristotelian roots you identify earlier, the hard-to-shake elements of identification & catharsis, silence & blankness itself constitutes a refutation, a joke played on the very object in your hand. One thinks of Molloy’s sucking-stones, the most worthless sort of pastime imaginable, but for him an entire encyclopedia of details.

      Am I merely adding a gloss to what you’ve got? Probably.

  59. Pete

      Interesting digression into conceptual art, but I wouldn’t even include it in the category of literature. This book “Blank” is not a novel, regardless of what the cover says. Perhaps it’s an artist’s statement about what a novel is or isn’t, or a statement about how a reader interacts with a novel, but that doesn’t make the work itself a novel. If I fart on the subway and call it rock ‘n’ roll, does that make me a rock musician? Have I performed a rock song?

      Conceptual art is all brain, no soul. Maybe clever the first time, but tedious since then.

  60. Uygyu


  61. Guestagain

      If you hooked up the plumbing it would be a Fountain, basin on the bottom and it’s a Madonna shape signed by a dog. There are these puns and bawdy comedy going on in Duchamp’s work and the result is always severe.

  62. Guestagain

      If you hooked up the plumbing it would be a Fountain, basin on the bottom and it’s a Madonna shape signed by a dog. There are these puns and bawdy comedy going on in Duchamp’s work and the result is always severe.

  63. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks, John.

      You’re right, Beckett haunts this constellation of ideas most certainly. I was actually thinking about his plays…considered including a connection to the way he uses “(Pause)” as a way of creating silence. Part of the reason I have a hard time watching the filmed versions of Happy Days is because I’m a stickler for those pauses, and hardly ever do performers respect them the way the script itself demands. Even, weirdly, the Billie Whitelaw version that Beckett himself directed. It’s weird. I read the text as very monotonous, very slow, almost unbearably slow, as if the play itself could last for eight or ten hours — the pauses going on for minutes and minutes. But all of the performances I’ve seen of it make those pauses short — and in some cases the performer ignores the pauses altogether. To my mind, this speaks to a common fear of silence, a common uncomfortably with silence. We spend so much time trying desperately to fill silence, to fill space. Emptiness is scary.

  64. OBarrett

      that’s some serious purity for rock ‘n’ roll–would we count both Captain Beefheart and Justin Beiber? To some, farts might be preferable to either extreme.

  65. Blair Hodges

      Just wanted to pop in and say thanks to Christopher for these 4 posts.

  66. J Lorene Sun

      Funny enough, I abandoned the self-described experimental MFA program I was in due to its forced conceptualism. 

  67. Guest Post by Davis Schneiderman: “On Groucho, Plagiarism, and the Camps” | The Home of Schlemiel Theory

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