HOW TO DO THINGS WITH DOCS. Notes Toward A Conceptual Politics Of Literature
The transcription of documents belonging to various violent crimes, the complete record of all utterances in a day, a list of brands in the order of their appearance on a trip across the Sunset Strip — what makes such projects political? Does conceptual literature lose its position through its programmatic erasure of the author? Obviously, it is far from a representation of social margins and sociological cross-sections, and lies under suspicion of mere aestheticism. This disqualifies it from “engagement”, which, according to Sartre, is possible only in prose. At the same time, the provocation of this writing-without-author does not seem to just be aiming into the void, and on closer inspection is not limited to the literary scene. Questions concerning what a text is, who its authors or editors are, what relation to reality it has, and what subjectivity it admits or excludes have become particularly controversial in the discussion surrounding conceptual projects. In the controversy over Goldsmith's performance of the ‘Body of Michael Brown’ — the appropriation of the autopsy document of an African American who was murdered by a police officer — these questions were raised very urgently, if not always in a particularly distinguishable way. It seems that the conceptual author is held responsible especially in the sense of a documentary ethos when s/he changes, manipulates and otherwise frames through artistic gestures texts which have an influence on social reality. In this sense, but perhaps not at first glance obvious, the conceptual avant-garde forms an alliance with documentary-style theater, and with re-enactments in the art of the last 15 years. Here as well as there, an aesthetic of the document has developed with political implications.
But what exactly is conceptual writing, again? Texts are created according to a system of predetermined rules. The author withdraws behind his or her concept as the mere generative instantiator of this text. Sometimes you just copy another text or manipulate it according to certain maxims: deletion, montage, alphabetical or thematic arrangement of all words. The arsenal of possibilities is manifold and constantly expanding. You choose fonts, cut out some passages, insert other texts, put the adjectives in alphabetical order, etc. In the first phase of the conceptual avant-garde around 2000, the use of such methods aimed at a destruction of authorship, which had remained untouched, despite the leveling of semantics and meaning by Dadaism, Surrealism and Postmodernism in the twentieth century. Those who undertake conceptual literature should really be called »data administrators«. They filter the sea of existing texts, pick out one or more, and push their (of course always temporary) re-manifestation as a book, website, blog post or tweet. The persisting aesthetic impact of these methods is one of de-authentication. The book, the document, the online commentary which gets published in a conceptual text loses its unique character and lingers in a space between indexicality and art.
Conceptual texts are best distinguished by their selection of text and type of manipulation they use on this text. A first subordinate category, oriented toward Appropriation Art, reverts back to the literary canon while discarding all but its traditional techniques of quotation, paraphrase and ironization. Appropriation Literature, for example, can be a montage of sentences from detective novels, which together yield a new novel (Joseph Kosuth, Purloined. A Novel, 2000). Or the reduction of classics like Alice in Wonderland to a graphical arrangement of all punctuation occurring in the text (Heidi Neilson, 2004). Or an alphabetical arrangement of all the words in Ulysses (Simon Popper, 2006). The second kind of conceptual literature extracts its raw material from non-literary texts. One could call this “conceptumentary” writing, because here a documentary approach is connected with conceptual methods of processing the found material. The reference of such projects to Duchamp's readymade is obvious: every linguistic utterance, when read through a filter of literary practices and institutional mechanisms, can be viewed as literature. Alexandra Nemerov's First My Motorola (2010) presents a memo of all the brands the author touched in a day. Dan Farrell's Inkblot Record (2000) lists the answers to a Rorschach test in alphabetical order. In Disclosure, Dana Teen Lomax continually publishes each document issued under her name, from birth certificate to tax return. A third form, finally, known as "Algorithmic Writing" searches for digital text-forms in databases, comment threads, or Twitter feeds, and subjects the resulting texts to editing and rearrangement by means of digital methods, whether through self-written Java bots and Python scripts or parasitic uses of commercial providers such as Amazon and Google. Mimi Cabell und Jason Huff sent digitized pages of American Psycho (2010) back and forth between two Gmail accounts and reissued the novel as an anthology of footnotes from the resulting pop-up notifications. In Erotica (2015), Hannes Bajohr filters out the onomatopoeic expressions from pornographic websites and graphically rearranges them onto a book page. Gregor Weichbrodt's algorithm gathers Wikipedia articles and publishes them under the author's name, but not without negating possession of such accumulated knowledge with the addition of "I do not know" before each sentence (2015).
LITERATURE AND POLICE
The more a society legitimizes itself through technical or institutional procedures, the greater the power of writing. The exchange of goods and ideas is made possible through record keeping, documenting possession and establishing means of trade — it was not by chance that writing was once developed as an administrative technique. Our late capitalist society of globally circulating goods and persons is based on a documentary activity that has achieved unprecedented levels of exactitude, imperviousness, and precision thanks to current technological developments. The smallest and most trivial events, behaviors and relations between subjects are subjected to the attention and recording capacities of corporations and state institutions. In principle, this form of documentation goes back to the end of absolutism and the emergence of modern administration. If Jacques Rancière equates the founding of the modern state with the introduction of a conglomerate of "police" institutions, it is not the invention of the uniformed security officer, but rather the genesis of facilities for the detection, visualization, and control of subjects. This police force wants to capture the state in its totality, with attention to the smallest events, the slightest actions of the subjects, their attitudes and opinions. A police force which writes and produces sensory profiles places subjects before the eyes of power, where institutions can document, control, and change these subjects’ daily lives. This intends toward a very different form of control in the disciplinarily oriented prisons, factories and schools, but also in the corporations and insurance agencies of the twentieth century identified by Deleuze as control milieus. Here as well as there, the interest is in the visibility of each individual. An "aesthetic regime" is created, which guarantees the visibility of subjects in the political body. As a modification of Austin's theory of the speech-act one could say: Documents are political acts. They create facts, allow access and distribute property — a political body. As every refugee knows, whose registry papers effectively determine their existence. Literature and politics are therefore intertwined through writing in the common field of visibility.
»Once in awhile I think of things too bad to talk about. Bad words, often terrible words, come into my mind and I cannot get rid of them. I am bothered by acid stomach several times a week. I am likely not to speak to people until they speak to me. Often I cross the street in order not to meet someone else. I am often sorry because I am so cross and grouchy.« In Legion, Craig Dworkin assembles the questions from the 1942 Minnesota Personality Inventory into a new text. He inserts an “I” into every sentence, letting the standardized questions become statements. He then arranges these sentences, without paragraphs, into one flowing text, so that they take on the character of a personal confession: »I believe I am plotted against. I would like to draw flowers. I have never been in trouble with the law.« On the one hand, you have here unique statements, actualized by a real and unmistakable “I”. On the other hand we know, and this knowledge is decisive for conceptual literature, that these statements arise from a forensic instrument. On top of this, the “I”-messages of the text revolve around unstructured and eclectic expressions of the lyrical “I” and in their parataxis are lined up as if by machine, similar to chatbot programs. With this artificial articulation in which “one” becomes “I”, Legion can be read as a commentary on the psychiatric construction of subjectivity through writing and writing techniques. If in this case an “I” claims a totality of the personality characteristics provided by a diagnostic apparatus, then it is not simply the psychiatric matrix of personality discursiveness articulating itself. It becomes likewise apparent how this knowledge of persons is implemented through writing techniques, how people use the words they are provided to address themselves as subjects. Like Inkblot Record by Dan Farrell, Sentences by Robert Grenier and Charles Bernstein’s A Person Is Not an Entity Symbolic but the Divine Incarnate, Legion employs the mimesis of psychiatric subjectivation procedures while using distancing alienation effects.
In the end one has to totally get rid of the perception that politics and art are isolated fields of action which could reflexively reference each other. Conceptual writing is not the ideological form of the dominant class relations, nor does it work toward their perpetuation. It could hardly be reduced to a mere participant in the discursive and medial structures of the present. The political dimension of this avant-garde is articulated in the way its authors expose (or interrupt) the present: As database, as medially prefiltered milieu, as a life always already captured by technical or state control systems. Conceptual texts rip moments from this reality, in order to use a text, a website, or a tweet for some arbitrarily chosen reworking. One should and must adopt them with such a bearing, this choice of praxis, as with the texts from which they were taken. To write based on concept is then similar to that praxis in Foucault’s Was ist Aufklärung? (What is Enlightenment?), described in regards to Baudelaire’s dandy: “A practice in which the utmost attentiveness for the real is confronted with the praxis of freedom, which at once pays attention and does violence to this ‘real’”. For this reason, authors like Goldsmith insist on the “Ethos of the Concept”, for in this lies the dangerous, the transformational effect of their artistic procedure. The concept extracts excerpts from our reality in order to transform it in the practice of writing. It is therefore a praxis of influencing reality, allowing the saturated realities of texts, images and commentaries to occur anew as text, with an alienating impact. If one can then criticize Goldsmith’s reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report, it shouldn’t be because of the tastelessness of the last sentences about the victim’s genitals, and not even for the drastic reproduction of the objectifying doings of pathology — art is allowed to go there. One could say, however, that Goldsmith has not been conceptual enough, that he didn’t have enough faith in the transformative influences of his re-reading, that he never allowed his intervention in the text or his performance to reflect or transcend his own context as privileged White male artist. It is obviously not enough to reproduce the reality of documents; in the fabrication of facticity through writing, one must begin to overcome it.
Many projects of conceptumentary writing (Appropriation Literature in particular) are to literary works what institutional critique was to the museum in the 70s: through the radical erasure of authors from the production processes, the economic, legal, and discursive operations of publishers, newspapers, and the book market which depend on these authors become apparent. More significant than Goldsmith’s transcription of the entire New York Times from September 1st, 2000 in Day is the Afterward containing the subsequent lawsuits from publishing houses—more interesting, that is, than what ultimately amounts to the reproduction of a Warholian avant-garde gest. Writing with concepts tends toward this relationship between the practices, routines, and institutional mechanisms out of which its texts are taken. In the case of Tragodia, Vanessa Place’s conceptumentary trilogy comprising her transcriptions of some of the cases from her work as a criminal defense lawyer, the Law itself is literature. As Place anonymizes and repurposes these evidences, explanations, and pleas into three complete volumes free of commentary, one begins to see how the often inexplicable violence of these cases is converted through strictly formalized writing operations into the space of the symbolic, which the Law both produces and delimits. Through Place’s reworking of legal documentation practices into a volume of poetry, the Law manifests itself as a written manufacturing of reality, as a factory of the Real. Far removed from this level of discourse are most of the projects of Algorithmic Writing. When Traumawien processes automated YouTube user comments into e-books and makes them available for purchase on Amazon, it amounts to not much more than an institution-critical prank on the digital publishing industry. Regarding contemporary Internet culture, however, this work poses a potentially interesting question: to whom do these unending heaps of text belong? With the increased ad impressions from these millions of daily users doing the work of absorbing, commenting on, and rating content, who ultimately profits?
I grew up during the wave of digital saturation occurring around the year 2000 and can still barely compete with the autobiographical possibilities of today’s twenty-somethings. I’ve forgotten almost everything, partially because I’m lazy with documentation, but definitely also due to the scatteredness of my attempts in this direction between analog and digital storage, having never latched on to any routines or systems. Finally, I grew up in a culture which no longer writes in diaries, but which also never had the kinds of media at its disposal that I now have in my mid-twenties. I’m still not used to this retrospective, selective, and reflective transcript of life; at the same time I’m lacking the routines of self documentation on the Net. So I end up with big holes in my memory. My life seems to not have happened, when I want to write about it... it seems so much easier to see myself in the texts and pictures of others. I’m a bit ashamed of this and do not see how to actualize myself in a supposedly authenticity- and autobiography-oriented literary culture. But also, maybe I am not so alone, at least, so I thought while reading Trisha Low’s The Compleat Purge. The book is part ironic confessional text, part Victorian Novel, part pornographic dialog, and thereby logs the formation and transformation of a feminine sensibility, sexuality, and sociality. Low assembles her text from the confessions of young women in online forums — punk-ish in her “low-culture” appropriation — inscribing a superimposed “I” into various net-texts. An at once ironically fragmented and affect-laden search for subjectivity develops, which between artificial and real expression discharges itself from any borrowed or proper authenticity. Literary lowcost cosplay, identity as the sum of frenetic acts of appropriation. In the accompanying essay to The Compleat Purge, Low describes a self-reflexive adolescent narcissism as the motivation behind this writing. A manic appropriating “I” which sees itself in everything takes the place of the arbitrary rigor, à la Goldsmith and Place, found in the conceptual avant-garde’s first generation. For this reason, one can speak of “post-conceptual writing” which, adopting the methods of the conceptuals, in the process infiltrates and softens them. At the same time this changes the frame of reference regarding the politics of this writing. Whereas the conceptual avant-garde’s first generation used Internet-inspired theories in their work while still resorting to the classical media like radio and TV or institutions found in the political theory of the 20th century like psychiatry, with the second wave the Internet now becomes its own para-institutional space of the political. Here is determined what it means for subjectivity to be surrounded by self-help books, online tutorials, Pornhub categories, and Snapchat emoticons. A post-institutional, post-conceptual writing receives political meaning only as a praxis of freedom within the commodified world of affects, ideas, and sensations on the Internet.
Trans. from the German by Matt Arnold, Duncan Anderson, Natalie Sablowski, Janina Schopf