In his book Notes on Conceptualisms, co-authored with Vanessa Place, Robert Fitterman states that “in much allegorical writing, the written word tends toward visual images, creating written images or objects, while in some highly mimetic (i.e., highly replicative) conceptual writings, the written word is the visual image.” He then says that “there is no aesthetic or ethical distinction between word and image” (Notes, 17). The reader tries (as a reader does) to make sense of this.
When a word is read or heard, its visual and sonic shapes activate the bodily memory of that word. This memory is connected to an image made up of a series of images (as all images are). There is no end to this series because it is by nature a series of series, infinitely referential. The “initial” series (the brain is so quick that we’re often completely unconscious of what images it is comprised of, or what we started off consciously thinking about) immediately births another series and this continues at a speed too fast for our fathoming, each series dropping out of another, until we hear or read the next word and the process starts all over again. This is brain vision (a written image), not visual vision (a visual image), and while the former is not any less vivid than the latter, there’s simply no denying that the two are, by nature, physically different experiences.
Fitterman is of course aware of this. But the goal of conceptual writing, as he later states, is failure (Notes, 22), and when a piece demonstrates the discrepancy between idea and execution—when what works in concept (for example, the written word being the visual image, rather than just referencing/conjuring it) reveals its artifice and deficiency in execution (the reader not experiencing the written word as, or in the same way as, the visual image)—it has been successful. In other words, the written word can, in highly mimetic writing, “be” (mimic, represent) the visual image within the writing (its conceptual framework), but it cannot literally recreate the experience of seeing (with one’s eyes) the visual image it is referencing. This is one of the reasons why Fitterman’s conceptual project, Holocaust Museum, is successful at what it does.
Holocaust Museum definitely qualifies as a “highly mimetic” or “highly replicative” conceptual work. The book is divided into seventeen sections—Propaganda, Family Photographs, Boycotts, Burning of Books, The Science of Race, Gypsies, Deportation, Concentration Camps, Uniforms, Shoes, Jewelry, Hair, Zyklon B Canisters, Gas Chambers, Mass Graves, American Soldiers, and Liberation—all of which are titles of actual exhibits at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.. Each section, accordingly, consists of captions that correspond to actual photographs (which are not shown, just cited by title) featured at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The scenes described by the captions greatly vary in almost all senses—location, who or what (objects or people or a combination of the two) is pictured, action or lack of action, the level of brutality in such, implicit and explicit violence, etc.—but each caption explicitly relates back, in subject matter, to the title of the section in which it’s included.
In its most basic conceptual sense, Fitterman has made a Holocaust museum completely out of words. What makes this so is that the words are working exclusively as representations of images. What makes this work successful, in one sense (the conceptual sense), is that it fails by its very nature (as a piece of writing) to recreate the visual images its captions stand in for, as well as the inherently different experience of seeing a picture, rather than having it described to you. What makes this work successful in another sense is that the effect of reading the captions devoid of their photographs is incredibly haunting, and is so in a way that lacks familiarity to us (“We have seen the pictures of our past, but the point is the caption” – Vanessa Place, on Holocaust Museum). The language of the captions is sterile and simple, even in its depiction of absolute atrocity (“View of the door to the gas chamber at Dachau next to a large pile of uniforms. [Photograph # 31327],” Holocaust, page 61), and as witness to these depictions, the reader begins to, in a sense, read the language, the voice, as their own, feeling increasingly implicated as they move through the text.
With Holocaust Museum, Robert Fitterman has made a conceptual object that succeeds by his own standards of success (failure, specifically in its ability to replicate) as well as by a more mainstream literary standard—being evocative, haunting, innovative, and generally affective. This is one way for a work of art to be exceptional, and with its confrontation of an event as important, disturbing, and already-discussed as the Holocaust, Holocaust Museum proves itself to be a groundbreaking and extraordinary conceptual work from several angles.
Lily Duffy is a poet, teacher, and editor living in Denver while working on her MFA in poetry at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her writing has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore City Paper, Hot Metal Bridge, ILK journal, Cloud Rodeo, Bone Bouquet, NAP, inter|rupture, and elsewhere. With Rachel Levy she co-edits DREGINALD.