Conceptualism Found in Translation Along with Dead Bodies

With ex-L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets like Rae Armantrout and Charles Bernstein are being translated into Spanish, one wonders what an even more anti-form tradition might look like in another language; for example, what would a translation of Kenneth Goldsmith´s conceptual work look like? I realize this is sort of stupid; it would be like translating John Baldessari or something. But let’s what-if this.

What if we translated Traffic for instance. Traffic is Goldsmith’s book  that consists solely of transcriptions of traffic reports from one day in New York (traffic on the 1s). Would a translation be the same act in New York only a different day (which would emphasize the time-binding effect that translations have)? Would it be the transcription of traffic reports from the same day in a different city, Mexico City for example where they also do traffic on the 1s? Or would it be say Carolina del Norte’s reports from MEGA in New York the same day Traffic was written? Or better yet – all of the above and the reader chooses the form of translation they’d like to read?

I guess I started thinking about this because for the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of static over on the Poetry Foundation blog about conceptualism. The whole things seems to have been sparked by a Poetry Project newsletter that pronounces the death of conceptualism. Goldsmith responded to it by writing its obit and pasting the text of the newsletter onto the Harriet Blog. Christian Bok and Vanessa Place also responded in interesting ways (Bok´s call for an online anthology of conceptualism is exciting, as are some of his links to those works like Gilgamesh for Apes). Johanna Drucker, author of said newsletter, responded to some these critiques, and seemingly chilled. (Drucker explains that she faced similar backlash when she proposed that conceptualism was the basis of most artistic output and was ¨trounced by Hal Foster and others¨.)

Really, this is a debate about post-conceptualism; once again literature (and particularly its most experimental branch, poetry – ¨wild¨ or otherwise) follows the art world in having this questioning the end of conceptualism.  Although it is still unresolved, it began some time ago. It is not unlikely to run into the word “post-conceptual”  in Artforum (as I did a few months ago in a great piece by David Joselit about Thomas Hirschorn). While I was at first interested in the concept – ahem – it seems like any of these other deaths – as Vanessa Place writes – only confirm that the cadaver is alive and well.

I noticed that in the Poetry Project newsletter mentions the financial marginalization of poetry:

“Aesthetic activity holds too small a market share of popular and mainstream culture to register on public consciousness, let alone public conscience.”  For someone who cites the concept of the noosphere, Drucker certainly maintains some classic social models. Public conscience? The same could be said of countless other arts – even novels. But then I’d have to figure out what this thing called the public conscience is.

Does it matter that it doesn’t sell when publications function as cultural capital for must in the industry? You may not make a cool mill from your second collection of poems, but you might be able to pick up a job teaching poetry somewhere in one of the many MFA programs  – that, by the way, defy the rules of orthodox economics (I’ll also point out that this exactly what Pierre Bourdieu is talking about when he discusses fine art; this is a self-contained economy with plenty of its own symbolic capital.)

If conceptualism is a “techne” it isn’t somehow replaced with a new one according to Foucault: they linger; other times they transform – as do dipositifs. So to say that this conceptualism thing will end somehow, is like saying the New York School poetics is over. Pick up a contemporary poetry rag and you will a lot of it is still there in one way or another.

Drucker has something to say about Cultural Studies as well:

“just as the Cult Studs practitioners are always laying bare the workings of media and cultural system, performing their ‘critiques’ ad nauseam as if they were not complicit in the situations they put themselves outside of.”

Well this is classic straw man. Cult Studies has never been a field of study with its own doxa – nor was it meant to. From its first days in Birmingham they were arguing about nearly everything. This eventually led Stuart Hall to concepts like “radical contextualism.”  While I agree with that Cult Studs has gone soggy in some academic cultural milieu in the U.S, but there are other programs surely that are aware of their active role in their own studies. Anyway, I can only speak for the program I’m enrolled in that prefers to think of Cult Studies as a floating signifier.

If nothing else, conceptualism is at least a step away from the positivist aesthetics in talking about the “best” anything. (I guess I have low standards.) Right now I’m reading The Cultural Cold War and it seems like aesthetics move with the contours of power; taste seems to be shaped by those who are on top of the economic economy. I’m for anything against that, even if it’s boring, or even if that is the very system within which we communicate.

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