In his introduction to The Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Craig Dworkin positions conceptual writing in opposition to romantic expression, to writing that conveys “the emotional truth of the self.” But he replaces it with a vision of writing that’s true to its linguistic self, writing that can’t be conceived of as taking any other form.
What would a nonexpressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with “spontaneous overflow” supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet’s ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself? So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.
But if the conceptualists are gonna argue for conceptual writing on the basis of its authenticity, I’ve already stopped listening.
You don’t fix art by imposing broken concepts on it in an unexpected way. Either speak in terms of effect (i.e. the real) or don’t speak at all. Against Expression belly-flops on its own deontology because it forgets that instruments (in the sense of “means” or “methods”) are only instruments. Experimental writing ought be understood as an experimental practice in which new techniques are tested against publics in order to develop a better disciplinary understanding of literary mechanics (cause-effect relationships) as well as diversify the art effects available. Instead, it’s cast as consecrated-on-sight, an inherently noble practice in which a given work’s methods of composition is, regardless of efficacy, sufficient for its deification.
Marie Buck’s entry here is a mess, Cage’s interview further evidences the confused nonsense-theoretics informing his practice, and Acker’s excerpt is poorly selected and non-illustrative of what undergirds her practice. (Acker is on the lowbrow end of conceptual writing, what with the overplayed plagiary pyrotechnics, but it’s still more effective than the majority of Against Expression‘s contents.)
We can defend pure conceptual lit as much as we want on the lines of its own self-sufficiency. Its own completion of its stated goals (e.g. organizing the Bible alphabetically, or mathematically organizing a set of found questions) may mean that definitionally such works are always successful. But we never evaluate human actions and products in terms of efficacy alone; the success at achieving an end of a certain desirability is merely a modifier on the desirability of the end (since, again, the end is all that’s real). It’s an established part of basic public discourse to question the worthiness of a action based on its consequences in the actual.