July 6th, 2012 / 11:52 am

“What does “Sincerely” mean, I wonder? Can a Conceptual Author be sincere?”

Fascinating, puzzling, provocative exchange between Kent Johnson and Craig Dworkin in the newest issue of Claudius App adds a very interesting spin to the current conversation surrounding sincerity. Here is the encounter between them (maybe? or maybe it’s all just a hoax?).

After considering the Johnson/Dworkin letters, be sure to check out the whole issue, it’s got a bunch of killer stuff in it by Joyelle McSweeney, Ariana Reines, Brandon Downing & Daniel Tiffany, and loads more.


  1. Richard Grayson

      Consider the etymology of “sincere.”  It comes from the Latin sine = “without” and cura = “care.”  Thus, a sincere person is “without a care” about what she is saying.  She can say anything she wants, carelessly.  Therefore, to be sincere is to lie (at least if a person feels like it).  The New Sincerity is built on new lies.




  3. Nicholas Grider

      Conceptual writing and NS work both replicate; it’s different forms of replication and for different reasons but if you want the autistic handle on this, conceptual writing is actually more “sincere” because it’s honest in its mimicry while NS writing employs hugely visible devices to produce an alt lit norm of what constitutes sincerity.

      By autistic I mean this: I’m autistic and if I’m meeting you at a reading or whatever what I’m doing is copying you.  I’m repeating back to you everything you’re doing and saying in a coy way because I have no idea what to say.  I’m appropriating you.  That’s conceptual writing (sort of).  NS writing would be more like me interfacing with you not by mimicking you (sincerely) but by using devices (vague open-ended replies designed to continue the chat) learned beforehand.  Not to just hammer the point here but I’ve always thought of the two as being closely allied but a converse vs. convex lens to look at what we want to say when we say “this is real.”

  4. deadgod

      I’m looking at two etymologies of “sincere”, those of the OED and Lewis’s Elementary Latin Dictionary.

      The OED offers “sincer-us [long e] clean, pure, sound, etc.”.  They add, “The first syllable may be the same as sim- in simplex[.]”

      The OED apparently – I think, clearly – is piggybacking on Lewis:  “sincerus [long e], adj. [3 SA- + 2 CER- ], clean, pure, sound, uninjured, whole entire[…]–Fig., sound, genuine, pure true, candid, truthful” (first and third square bracket pairs mine; second, Lewis’s).  For the Latin root “3 SA-, SEM-, SIM-“, Lewis has “together, like“, and adds that “sincerus [long e] may be from sim- and 2 CER-, meaning wholly separated“.  He has, for “2 CER, CRE”, “part“, and adds “sin-cerus [long e] (see 3 SA-, SIM-)”.

      So, for Lewis:  ‘wholly apart from’.  That is, ‘completely separated or apart from’… the consequences, the fear of consequences, of telling the truth.

      (My question for Lewis – for any of the many Latinists of greater erudition than mine – is:  wholly separated sounds exactly wrong.  It sounds like “3 SA- + 2 CER-” indicates ‘wholly a part of’, ‘wholly unseparated from [reality or the true case]’.  Is the 2 CER, CRE piece of the word “sincerus” [long e] to mean part in the sense of partition or belonging??)

      Your folk etymology is amusing, because the opposite connotation insists:  ‘without a care for consequences‘, meaning ‘able to tell the truth unhindered by fear’.

      Here’s the problem with it as a linguistic etymology:  it needs to refer to a systematic phonetic transition from the long-u of cura (possible root “1 CAV-, watch, ware“, by way of *cavira) to the long-e of sincerus.  Perhaps you like *secura/*sinecura (or even *secavira/*sinecavira) being syncopated as sin-cerus [long e].  That’s an adventurous conjecture–perfectly in line with the Old Sincerity of, eh, Persius.

  5. deadgod

      I would definitely read that Cage ‘auto’biography.

  6. Kent Johnson
  7. Kent Johnson

      This seems relevant to the topic: slightly changed from a comment I posted a few days ago in the ‘New Sincerity’ discussion at Montevidayo:
      One complication with these recent discussions around the American version of “New Sincerity,” it seems to me, is that the term has been little parsed for particularities. I’ve noticed, for example, that poets like Dean Young and Frederick Seidel often get thrown into the mix. What poets like Young and Seidel have in common with writers like Tao Lin, Joe Massey, or Dorothea Lasky is not very clear. Nor is it clear what writers like Massey or Lasky have in common with someone like Lin, his MuuMuu circle, or the Alt-Lit derivations that AD Jameson has been promoting.

      For instance, Young and Seidel so aggressively parry the pretense of candor with counterpoints of acute irony (in both topical and formal ways) that any notion of sincerity, really, flies out the window: textually speaking, if they are in any way “sincere,” their sincerity is in how openly, and often satirically, they stage rhetorical artifice.
      In poets like Massey and Lasky, on the other hand, the sincerity affect gets carried in relatively straightforward tone, with very little fraught irony about it: They seem to really believe in the genuineness of their language, and the laconic, plain registers of it seem honestly proposed as superseding any interfering, “extra-poetic” noise. This can be a tricky thing to consistently handle: even a gifted poet like Massey can sound, in weaker moments, like a post-avant Hallmark card.

      In writers like Tao Lin and his imitative cohorts, something very different from the above cases is going on. Here the rhetoric of unmediated sincerity is also put front and center, but at such high-pitched scales of naivete and ingenuousness that it can only be (the unspoken secret is that it is meant to be) taken as *disingenuous.* And that, indeed, is the ingenious game. The art of it is realized in a coy dance along the thread that separates the ersatz real estate of “sincerity” from the very real demand for Authorial derivatives in overheated lit-biz markets. One can complain that the opportunist performance is cynical, but in the Literary Exchanges, as in the financial ones, there are bubbles, and operators can accumulate fifteen minutes of capital from playing them. After all, when it comes to “sincerity” in the Literary Field these days, morality is pretty much for losers.

      So I’d propose that if we’re going to speak of any kind of actually existing New Sincerity in American writing, we’ve got to be more specific about what we mean, and not throw very dissimilar practices into the same basket.

  8. A D Jameson

      Hi Kent,

      Thanks for chiming in!

      I haven’t addressed Young or Seidel myself, other than to note maybe once (at the French Exit, I think) that others have called them “New Sincere.” I myself have no opinion on their NS standing.

      I have referred to Massey, Lasky, Lin, and Muumuu House in general. And the connection I see there is exactly the one you just observed: simply that all of those writers seem concerned with producing writing that currently looks or feels or comes across as “unmediated.” They do this in different ways of course, and there are of course differences between all of those authors. And no doubt they are interested in other things beside that—but it is one common interest they seem to share.

      My very specific interest, therefore, is in what devices, formally and aesthetically, can currently be used to create that “unmediated” or “sincere” effect. I’ve already listed elsewhere certain devices that I think have counted toward this—for instance, Muumuu’s tendency toward lowercase sans-serif fonts, Lasky’s “emotive outbursts” and use of apostrophe, Steve Roggenbuck’s misspellings, and more. It’s hardly a complete list but this is something I’m still working on.

      To me it matters less whether these artists are using exactly the same devices, or using them to the same ends (and I certainly think these devices can be used to create ironic effects as well as sincere ones). And I also have absolutely no interest whatsoever in whether a writer is being “actually sincere” or not, a rather vague formulation I see people repeatedly coming back to and which I can’t, for the life of me, even begin to fathom. (How would such a thing ever be documented or evaluated?) I am interested in intended aesthetic effects that are formally produced.

      Beyond that, I’d confess to a general interest in how and why this is an issue in contemporary poetics. I don’t think there’s any one answer to that question.

      As such, my preference is less to speak about this phenomenon broadly—other than to observe that something seems to be going on—and more to look at specific works by specific writers. My earlier posts that spoke more generally about the NS were intended more to illustrate a very specific point in Shklovsky, that of “differential perceptions,” and not to say anything definitive or lasting about the NS or Alt Lit, etc.


  9. Kent Johnson

      Hi Adam
      Yes, and I think your commentary on this NS thing has been good and useful.
      But what I’m saying is that a poet like Massey is very different in the “feel” of his “unmediatedness,” if that’s a word, than the feel of it in a writer like Tao Lin. In Massey, one takes it straight up; in Lin, it’s impossible (at least for me) to do so. In the latter case, the unmediatedness is dripping with all sorts of mediated desire/anxiety to play the Field, so to speak. He’s sort of Warholian (I mean in effect, not talent); Massey, insofar “sincerity” is concerned, is more like an avant minimalist Keats.
      One thing I like is your use of Shklovsky to frame things. I think with the NS mode, especially in regards the MuuMuu House phenomenon (as per my remarks in previous), that Shklovsky could be joined with some basic Bourdieu in more analysis.

  10. Anonymous

      I don’t like this definition of “without care”. I would equate it to “without reflection” “without calculation” “without pretension”. Like, an immediate response that is unfiltered and without regard (or care) for who hears it, what the consequences will be, how it will make you look, etc.

  11. Anonymous

      Lying would be impossible in this mode of communication, at least how I see it.