Craig Dworkin (b.1969) is a poet, literary theorist and art critic. His work over the past decade has involved some of the most strenuous examples of ‘conceptual writing’ as well as some of the most giddy sound-scapes to come out of the practice of phonetic translations. Dworkin takes seriously Wittgenstein’s axiom that “there are no gaps in grammar, that everything is already there if we will only see the connections.”
He is the author of Reading the Illegible (Northwestern UP, 2003) and four books of poetry: Signature-Effects (Ghos-Ti, 1997); Dure (Cuneiform, 2004); Strand (Roof, 2004); Parse (Atelos, 2008); and The Perverse Library (Information as Material, 2010). He has edited Architectures of Poetry (Rodopi, 2004); Language to Cover a Page: The Early Writing of Vito Acconci (MIT, 2006); The Consequence of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics (Roof, 2008); The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound (with Marjorie Perloff, Chicago UP, 2009); and Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (with Kenneth Goldsmith, Northwestern UP, 2010).
He curates two on-line archives: Eclipse and The UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, and is Professor of English at the University of Utah.
Jared Wells: To begin at a particular deep end, I’m interested in your thoughts on the connection between the aural performance of certain conceptual poems and the radical, abstract music of sound poetry. I’m thinking here of such sustained exercises in repetition and variation as Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic and The Weather, José Luis Castillejo’s “TLALAATALA”, and Caroline Bergvall’s “Via: 48 Dante Variations”, as well as your own high-speed readings from Parse and Vito Acconci’s "REMOVAL, MOVE [LINE OF EVIDENCE]: the grid location of streets, alphabetized, Hagstrom's maps of the boroughs: 3. Manhattan". Could you speculate on what vocal performance brings to these kinds of procedural, ostensibly sterile conceptual works?
Craig Dworkin: Well, one thing performance can underscore is how poetic these works are, even in the most traditional sense: they often involve measure – a counting of some kind – and a rhythm and an assonance. What Pound would have called melopoeia. Not to mention a clear formal logic. Actually reading Conceptual works rather than just glancing at their descriptions reveals the extent to which they often make everyday language strange, redeploying communicative language towards other ends (the very definition of poetry for the Slavic Structuralists). Or, in Wittgenstein's terms: although they are composed in the language of information, they are not used in the language-game of giving information.
On the other hand, for many people, "poetry" has come to mean simply a genre of writing that includes a small epiphany – a "deep" thought or "profound" insight or a bit of self-realization by an especially sensitive person. And it's broken into irregular lines. But without any sense of the line as a foregrounded device, or any evident interest in the qualities of the language itself (much less the word-as-such). These are poems that should have heeded Pound's admonition: "do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose."
So we're in a paradoxical situation where much Conceptual writing is actually more poetic than the soi-disant "poetry" of people who react to Conceptual writing by saying "that's not poetry!"
JW: I think you're right in suggesting that performance helps to underscore the poetic and formal aspects of Conceptual works, in particular the defamiliarization of idiomatic and colloquial language. In "The Stutter of Form" you quote Michael Davidson’s observation that a poetics of disability “defamiliarizes not only language, but the body normalized within language" (183). Does something similar occur in Conceptual writing? I'm thinking here, for example, of the evocations of physical violence and exhaustion scattered throughout Parse, the glottal stuttering of Bergvall's "About Face," and the atomized, machinic-body of Goldsmith's Fidget. What is the role of the body in Conceptual writing?
CD: Well, the real answer is that the role is as diverse as the various pieces. But I think you're right to focus on the corporeal as a locus of interest. Steve Zultanski's PAD and Dana Teen Lomax's Disclosure would be other key works to consider – along with JG Ballard's "surgical fictions," Nada Gordon's "Abnormal Discharge," work in the anthology by Trisha Low, Ariana Reines, Deborah Richards, Kim Rosenfield.... the list could go on and on. And I'm reminded of Donald Burgy's "Checkup," as one of the many precedents from the world of conceptual art.
One other place to look would be where techniques of transcription are used. Friedrich Kittler points out that one of the collateral effects of modern media – film, phonograph, etc. – was to register and record some of the unintended, involuntary and generally unnoticed noises of the body: wavers of the voice, stammers, blinks, twitches, and so on. When the filters are set sufficiently low in Conceptual projects, you can register the same bodily activity: the um's and ah's in Kenny's Soliloquy or Traffic, say, or the distracted subject in much of Tan Lin's recent work.
The flip side of those biological registrations is the recognition that language is always a material body as well, even with all the seemingly effortless and disembodied flickering of its digitization – language is in fact something to be clicked and cut and pasted and transferred.
JW: To circle back a bit, I'm currently toying with the idea that in the aural performance of Conceptual works – particularly catalogues, lists, and dense, data-heavy texts that are not easily read aloud – the body comes to be grafted onto the work as a kind of originary supplement, one that emerges sporadically in and through the repetitions, stutters, misfires, and elisions that tend to mark embodied performance. (This process of [re-]embodiment perhaps mirrors the self-eclipsing dynamics of what Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman call the “sobject”, where effects of the subject are registered within the work in the form of textual illegibility, noise and interference – Kenny's inebriation in the final section of Fidget, for example).
CD: Yes – and in terms of the politics of vocal readings, I think again of Caroline Bergvall, and her amazing work 'Say: “Parsley.”' But there is also the example of something like Brian Joseph Davis' “Voice Over” – one of those catalogues of dense, data-heave accumulation: thousands of movie advert tags (e.g. "They are society’s most notorious criminals; they are our only hope."). But in this case, Davis hired a professional voice-over actor – Scott Taylor – to perform the text (or about ten pages, which was as much as he could afford). There, the smoothy disembodied voice of professionalism prevails, and is an essential part of the work from the beginning.
JW: Changing tack: while context is everything, I was wondering if you could speculate on the significance of the proper name in Conceptual writing?
CD: Well, that topic could go in any number of directions – I'm interested to hear what you think. But two routes come immediately to mind. One is the prevalence of brand and corporate names. I'm thinking of poems like Rob Fitterman's "Metropolis 16" or Alexandra Nemerov's "First my Motorola" or even Michael Gottlieb's "The Dust," where the personal proper name runs up against the commercial name to devastating psychological effect. What all those brand names say about the corporatization of language would be worth thinking through more widely and carefully. One purely poetic effect, however, is a Poundian specificity and concretism: the "direct treatment of the thing." In contrast to poems driven by narrative, for which adequate words are found to fit a preconceived story, here the words come first – filtered by a certain procedure – and the narrative follows from their specifics.
The other route would be to trace the power of the authorial name. Those effects are implicit in Mónica de la Torre's masterpiece "Doubles," for instance. Or more crudely in Ted Berrigan's infamous interview with John Cage (which didn't involve Cage at all – Berrigan ventriloquized for him, copying answers from Warhol interviews and other sources and putting the words in Cage's mouth). More recently, Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter's Issue 1 demonstrated the extent to which poets who are happy to appropriate the words of others are not yet ready to have their own names appropriated. This, I suspect, will be the next frontier for Conceptualism's challenge to literary identity: greater kinds of anonymity and impersonation. Vanessa Place's Factory Series – books written anonymously by others but published under her name – is taking pioneering strides in that direction.
JW: I'm glad you brought up Fitterman's “Metropolis 16”, as I'm very interested in the way in which schematic diagrams of proper names may function cartographically, in particular as a means of mapping social and commercial spaces; I'm thinking also of Fitterman's “Directory” and, again, Acconci's "REMOVAL, MOVE [LINE OF EVIDENCE]" (although there Manhattan street names are translated into numerical locators). Could you say something about the politics of these indexical reductions of social space?
CD: “REMOVAL” would be a perfect example of what I had in mind just now – the facts are just presented without elaboration (the grid coordinates to alphabetized street names), but narratives emerge from those seemingly meaningless series of letters and numbers: whole histories of urban development and social politics that are legible in the grid of Manhattan and its deviations.
But more than any particular social narrative, I think what's most politically powerful about those indices is their 'pataphysics: they way in which they proceed AS IF ('as if' the list of grid coordinates were meaningful, when that's not the way we usually think of maps). On the one hand, that's a utopian gesture – maybe the most fundamental revolutionary impulse: to imagine that things might be otherwise.
Or to put that slightly differently; such works treat data as if they were information – but not the information the sources imagine they have presented, already packaged for consumption. Again, one could think through the political implications of particular works (the narrative space of the shopping mall, for instance), but the more fundamental lesson is that we are given certain facts, and certain parameters – unavoidable situations – but we can always do something else with that given material. We have more freedom to thwart the implied telos of a situation than we usually remember. As Guy Debord wrote: "dans cet espace mouvant du jeu, et des variations librement choisies des règles du jeu, l'autonomie du lieu peut se retrouver [the autonomy of place can be rediscovered in the shifting space of play and in the freely chosen variations in the rules of the game].
JW: Your reference to the 'pataphysics of Acconci's piece is interesting – can you comment further on the relevance of this ludic science to conceptual writing?
CD: I've written a little about that relevance elsewhere, with special attention to the politics of conceptual writing, but some of the connections are clearer to me now. First, the way in which 'pataphysics takes a pre-established system, makes a minimal intervention – the slight unexpected swerve of the clinamen – and then lets the results play out is one precedent for the kind of work that exemplifies conceptual writing: minimal but meaningful authorial intervention in a found text or database. There is also a loosening, in 'pataphysics, of the identification between author and text, since 'pataphysics so often involves a ventriloquized or appropriated style (Jarry writing in the mode of popular science journalism, for instance). That loosening continues in the OuLiPo, which we sometimes forget was a direct offshoot of the Collège de Pataphysique. The OuLiPo model, in which the emphasis falls on conceptual forms rather than particular results – forms that are to be held in common and tried by whoever wants to take them on – was another important precedent for conceptual writing. Although we know who invented the S+7 technique (Jean Lescure), for example, there's not the same sense of proprietary ownership. Conceptual writing shares something of the OuLiPo's sunny, eager optimism about the force of a potential future: the world is full of things to be taken and tried, to be improved on and experimented with, misused and retooled, played and played-out, shared and shared alike.