For me, the interesting thing about conceptual writing is that from its beginning it has been absolutely spiritual. Conceptual writing has always held it’s practices and beliefs to be “more real” and exclusively to have a privileged access to a true reality, whether that be the structural underpinnings of form and genre, the larger aggregations of the Internet and the social, or the transcendent nature of the critical gesture.
The techniques that conceptual writing employs are very originally spiritual practices; its interest in aleatoric processes, cyclicality and repetition, allegory, constraint, and dogmatic procedure are all formulated as various attempts to open consciousness to a superhuman experience, an experience that might best be described as the autonomy of form or media.
To say that conceptual writing is “religious” is not meant to belittle it. It might be more palatable to say that religious practices are conceptual in nature, that conceptual writing may appear religious only to the extent that religious practices are already conceptual. But we do owe Gordon our gratitude for making explicit this undeniably religious dimension of conceptual writing.
As far as I can tell, this spiritual dimension is a remainder from the work of conceptual art insofar as conceptual writing cobbles together its set of tools from those devised by visual artists in the ’60s. The whole notion that a conceptual artwork need not be “realized” is a spiritual one, and it counters the traditionally held belief that conceptual art is an institutional critique of the gallery and the modes of representation inscribed in its logic with a vague spiritualism that reappears as fiercely as any return of the repressed. If we view conceptual writing as a finite set of techniques and practices, then it indeed appears as a direct descendant of conceptual art.
Indeed, it is important to hold onto this idea of conceptual writing as a repetition of conceptual art, but only if we view it specifically against the farcical character bestowed on it by its earliest proponents. It is this farcical repetition that retroactively “tragedizes” the failure of conceptual art in its mission to stem the tide of for-profit gallery-sponsored neo-figurative and neo-expressionist artworks of the late seventies and early eighties.
Conceptual writing is poised to parody this failure only to the point that it insists on the precedence of the concept. What conceptual writing needs is a concept of the physical in writing, a concept that only it is capable of conceiving at this point in literary history. Indeed, conceptual writing may have only one concept, that of the aesthetic. No other “school” or “movement” today can claim to have any real relation with the aesthetic in writing.
First, we must recognize that this concept of the aesthetic, of the physical in the fullest sense, is in no way inherent in the techniques that conceptual writing puts forward as its own. Any weapon can be turned against the one that wields it (see Victor Serge’s “Machine gun, typewriter, or …?” in What Everyone Should Know about Repression)
Second, we must dump the idea that language is material, which harbors conceptual writing’s more misogynist tendencies moreso than does its so-called totalizing impulse, and instead focus our efforts on constructing a physics of language, one that would not theorize language as inert matter activated by the pure agency of the concept, but one that would begin with the agency of language as well as the resistance of language to the concept, so that the word, the logos itself, is broken into the irreducible duality of agent and object. This would reverse the demotion of the subject inherited from language writing, and instead demote consciousness to one object among an infinity of other subject-objects, each with an equivalent ontological priority.
This is what it would mean for writing to become physical instead of just conceptual—writing would no longer be the slave morality weaponizing the subject-less proliferation of linguistic structures against the straw men of normative writing, emotional expression, and linguistic reference.
Conceptual writing is doomed to follow its own strangulating logic; it insists that all writing is conceptual, but it can accomplish this declaration only by maintaining the division between itself and normative writing, therefore subverting its own claims. Conceptual writing can only persist by leaping beyond its conditions. It is only in this way that conceptual writing has any chance of averting the fate of conceptual art.
Its logic, which was useful for establishing the possibility for a novel understanding of writing, is a contingency that has fatally been taken for a necessity, for the necessity of all writing. Conceptual writing therefore cannot itself escape this necessity, which is why it is left with the choice between extinction or evolution—but not a merely developmental evolution. Instead, a radical alteration into something continuous but unrecognizably so.
For conceptual writing, everything dissolves into its relations, there are only networks. It has thus described itself as a static model, and the extent to which it believes in this fiction will determine how far it will cut itself from the processes of literary history that it is half-heartedly attempting to alter. To get beyond networks, we have only to look to Gordon’s book, which is a limit to the infinite relativity of the network that it interrupts, that is already interrupted.
Gordon’s book is premised on the incommensurability of the two networks it interrupts: the library and the book. The book’s network may be a figure in miniature of the library’s, but the book can never become the library. Conversely, the library is something other than its relations and even its relationality. Gordon’s book plays on this irreducibility, which is a property of the things themselves and not simply an aporia of consciousness or of the concept.
At the same time that this duality of book and library, of thing and relations, is made explicit by the conceptual dimension of Gordon’s book, another duality, one between the book as something specific and the book as something at all, opens up our inquiry to a new dimension not directly anticipated by conceptual writing—namely, history.
The Source as book and The Source as the book that it is—here we have a duality that is not equivalent to that between an object and its relations. Here, we have a division within the object; we have a book as a particular intervention into already established networks. Whether or not one likes or dislikes Gordon’s book, it is undeniably a real moment in the literary history it engages.
The book works, but it is not just any work. All writing might be conceptual through and through, but conceptual writing as a specific object cannot immediately become all writing. And it is not enough merely to choose one or the other, either the insistence on the flat ontological equivalence of all writing or the unique critical intervention of conceptual writing as a “school” (basically, a choice between impotent libertarianism and self-destructive ressentiment); instead, the remainder irreducible to either must somehow become the subject-object of the desire that conceptual writing embodies historically. While I don’t have time to go into it here, I think this desire is coextensive with poetry as a real moment within language as physical, that is, as at once material and spiritual. I will leave that thought for another time.