Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Conceptualism and the Politics of the Art Object

“The editor has written me that he is in favor of avoiding ‘the notion that the artist is a kind of ape that has to be explained by the civilized critic.’ This should be great news to both artists and apes.”

--Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”

As we move through the art of the 20th century (and beyond), from Dada forward, we move increasingly toward the dematerialization of the art object—from breaking apart the object in Cubism, to abstracting it in Abstract Expressionism, to eliminating it as a criteria altogether in movements such as Fluxus, which favored experience over the sacredness of the object, and Conceptual Art, which favored the idea of the object over its actual execution of lack of.

As with many “movements” within art, there is some contestation around Conceptual Art, including its origins and its time lines. Charles Harrison, former editor of Art-Language places Conceptual Art within a very specific time frame of 1967-1972, during which time he sees the existence of a “critically significant conceptual art movement.” (29) A 1998 exhibit, Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, organized by the Queens Museum of Art, placed the movement globally within a much broader frame from the late 1950s into the present day. Likewise, Harrison traces the inception of Conceptual Art back to minimalism, with its anti-formal tendencies, a claim that Sol LeWitt, in his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” denies by saying that no one he knows will admit to being a minimalist.

Dick Higgins’ “Intermedia Chart” is a useful reference, because it shows a number of contemporary cointerminous art movements and the way in which they intersect with one another. In it, we see Conceptual Art linked with both Fluxus and Happenings, and indeed, a number of artists’ work did fall into both Fluxus and Conceptual art, most notably Yoko Ono, whose performance pieces such as “Cut Piece” and “Piece to Hammer a Nail” emphasize the interactive, experiential nature of the work to the audience, whereas works such as the “War is Over! (if you want it)” billboards and Grapefruit fall into the realm of Conceptualism. In fact, I would alter Higgins’ chart to bring concrete poetry, visual novels, etc. closer to Conceptual Art in the matrix.

Without getting too bogged down in debates over origins and timeline, however, we can look at the tendencies that define historical and contemporary Conceptual Art, particularly as set forth by LeWitt himself in his “sentences” and “paragraphs” on Conceptual Art as well as looking at some of the politics of the dematerialization of the art object itself.

At its most basic, Conceptual Art privileges the idea over the object. In fact, according to LeWitt, whether the object is actually ever created or not is incidental. Point 10 of “Sentences on Conceptual Art” asserts that “Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.” While talking about an art made of ideas and language may at first blush sound very cerebral and based in logic, “LeWitt is quick to emphasize the intuitive nature of Conceptual Art and desire to work against “rational art.” The logical exists only to be subverted.

“Logic may be used to camouflage the real intent of the artist, to lull the viewer into the belief that he understands the work, or to infer a paradoxical situation, such as logic vs. illogic.”

While there are many examples of objects created by Conceptual artists, including the prolific LeWitt himself, pieces that have come to be known as “instruction pieces” such as Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, or text pieces with few, if any, visual elements that we have come to associate with “art” are what we generally reference when talking about Conceptual Art. In fact, textuality plays a major role in Conceptualism, both in the art works and in the works of the artist. At the most basic level,
Conceptual Art works have a tendency to be include text. “Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use an form, from an expression of works (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.” (Sentence #15). “If words are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature; numbers are not mathematics.”

Harrison calls Conceptualism a movement of “artists who write” and there is a strong anti-critic streak within the movement. Even though LeWitt acknowledges that the artist may or may not fully understand his or her own work, LeWitt also criticizes the “secret language of the critic” [13]. By conceptualizing the art from the outset, the artist becomes a sort of self-critic, eliminating the critic as mediator between the audience and the art. Writing about the art was as important as creating it and vehicles such as Art News, where Lewitt’s sentences and paragraphs were first published, as well as Art-Language, offered forums for conceptual artists to show themselves as critics. Even using a format such as sentences and paragraphs which sets up a grammatical, language-based approach, rather than invoking the form of the manifesto, which previous avant-garde movements relied upon, shows a break with past ideas of art objects as separate from language.
Conceptual Art reacted against Abstract Expressionism as not pushing art far enough away from the object, still privileging the art object as self-contained and as more concerned with its internal relationships than with the object’s relationship within the world. Abstraction, then, questions the image, but not the architecture of positions or the social relationship of the object. (Harrison, 31) Seeing painting, sculpture and traditional art forms as rigid and hegemonic, signs of an imperialist culture (41), Conceptual Art, as a movement of opposition, was self-conscious about its position among historical avant garde revolutions. Moreover, according to Harrison, the artists were not so much concerned with overthrowing, but to “reformulate and revalue modernism so as to validate their own enterprise as artistic . . . . clear[ing] a space for themselves to work.” (42) In fact, he contends that modernism needed to be current in order for the Conceptualists to establish themselves as avant garde. (42)

It is on this critique of the art object and of the architecture it inhabits that I would like to linger and focus for the remainder of this piece. Among the hegemonic institutions that Conceptualism was reacting to was the art museum itself. I’d like to go out on a limb and borrow from Peggy Phelan’s ideas about the politics of representation to talk about the politics of the art object and of removing the object from the gaze of both spectator and critic.

LeWitt distinguishes, first of all, between perceptual art, being art for the eye, and conceptual art, in which the concept is the most important aspect. Art that exists for the eye alone is subject to “the gaze”. Harrison describes the art object as “something contained within the ambient space of the stationary spectators gaze, its means restricted to whatever that gaze could pick out and animate.” In Unmarked, Peggy Phelan describes “the institional effect of the gallery” as putting the art object “under house arrest, controlling all conflicting and unprofessional commentary about it.” In this way, the gallery is able to maintain a degree of critical control over the work, and through controlling the placement and architecture of the piece, directing the gaze in certain ways.

In discussing art and representation within a feminist frame, Phelan suggests that “it can be effective to politically and aesthetically deny representing the female body imagistically, psychically, to bring about a new form of representation itself.” (164) 1 I contend that we can substitute the art object for the “female body” as a way of looking at the art object in this context of politics and representation.

Phelan draws a link between the gaze and commodification, and here, there can be no denying that Conceptual artists, concurrently with artists in Fluxus and other parallel movements, were indeed reacting against commodification of their work, and consequently, I would argue, against the gaze of institutions that wield power. As we can see in current political conditions, art is frequently on the front lines of political battles, either standing with or in opposition to, powerful institutions. Phelan describes an aesthetics of representation as offering a “pleasure of semblance and repetition [that] produces both psychic assurance and political fetishization.” (3) She further describes visibility politics as “compatible with capitalisms relentless appetite for new markets . . . The production and representation of visibility are part of the labor of the reproduction of capitalism.” (1)

Harrison talks in a parallel way about beholding as problematized by Conceptual Art. Specifically, how is the “beholder” qualified to view and judge the art object, to what end does “beholding” lead, and under what conditions is it taking place? (33) This gets to the heart of the gallery/critic system, in which experts decide the architecture and placement of the work as well as its aesthetic and critical interpretation. Indeed, this is what situates the gallery as a hegemonic, anti-democratic institution from which art had to be freed.

By emphasizing the idea of the object as primary over its execution, Conceptual artists bring into question the “value” of every piece of art that hangs in a gallery or museum. Sometimes refusing to create objects at all, they then sidestep the commodification of their ideas and their creativity. Some artists set up tables and sold small items themselves, including “selling” intangible objects or concepts for whatever their “buyers” were willing to pay for them (Camnitzer) and in the process, democratizing and subverting the system of selling art altogether.

Of course, it is the nature of the capitalist gaze to create commodities, which fits hand in hand with the nature of artists and their movements to want to be remembered. Consequently, Conceptual Art has not been able to completely escape the traps of representation. While they may have initially confounded the gallery system, the writings of many original Conceptual Artists and the textual nature of the work lend themselves to book publishing, and what objects do remain from previous moments of Conceptual Art now find their way into museums and traveling exhibitions. This is a tension that the avant garde has not been able to free itself from completely as it moves from present moment to retrospective. Nonetheless, Conceptualism has provided the opportunity for visual artists to challenge the very bases of their work: both the gaze of the spectator and critic, and the gallery system in which they encounter the art object. In its current practice, Conceptualism remains an art form that through its use of text and idea, lends itself easily to political and activist contexts and in doing so, continues to struggle with and confront these very issues.

1 While I don’t know that I am willing to argue that the art object itself is inherently female at this point, it cannot be denied that the subject of many masterpieces has in fact, been the feminine form. Thus the art object in those cases becomes directly implicit in the relationship of the gaze to the female body. And in fact, a number of feminist artists have turned to Conceptual art to produce works that confronted the male gaze outright. See Camnitzer et al.


Alberro, Alexander, and Blake Stimson. Conceptual art : a critical anthology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999.
Camnitzer, Luis, Jane Farver, Rachel Weiss, László Beke, Queens Museum of Art, Walker Art Center, and Miami Art Museum of Dade County. Global conceptualism : points of origin, 1950s-1980s / foreword by Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, Rachel Weiss ; introduction by Stephen Bann ; essays by László Beke .. New York: Queens Museum of Art : Available through D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 1999.
Harrison, Charles. Essays on Art & language. Oxford [England] ; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 1991.
Higgins, Hannah. Fluxus experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
LeWitt, Sol. “Sentences on Conceptualism.”, Referenced February 25, 2004.
Munroe, Alexandra, Yoko Ono, Jon Hendricks, and Bruce Altshuler. Yes Yoko Ono / Alexandra Munroe with Jon Hendricks ; with essays by David A. Ross, Murray Sayle, Jann S. Wenner ; contributions by Bruce Altshuler .. New York: Japan Society ; Harry N. Abrams, 2000.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked : the politics of performance. London ; New York: Routledge, 1993.

Appendix 1: Intermedia Chart
Appendix 2: Sentences on Conceptual Art

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Gender and Genre Continued

I have journals due in one of my current MA classes, but the instructor is only going to glance at them. I have done all of this work for very little return. I know, a journal is often written only for oneself, but I also wrote it as a conversation with the instructor which now will not happen. So as to make this a more fruitful endeavor, I am going to post some of the journals here. Enjoy and feel free to respond so as to make these truly a conversation.

I got this article out of a book called Feminist Theory and Folklore, and so it is, indeed, about both of those subjects, but again, any kind of feminist approach to academia must also, or should also, in my mind, deal with boundary crossing. Right away on the first page of the article she talks “how people negotiate the categories that are imposed upon them” (71). Many of the restrictions of academic writing predate women’s mass entrance into the academy and represent patriarchal categories of what “counts” as academic writing, what “counts” as academic publishing, etc. I have underlined at least half of the first page because it says so much that I have come to love and agree with.

“Theories of gender and genre converge in their exploration of the problems of classification and the disruption of boundaries. Genre is often (emphasis mine) gendered . . . . Gender scholarship questions how cultural categories are reproduced and under what conditions women are complicit with or resistant to the reproduction of conventions.”

Schuman continues, talking about the way that “genre classification systems could represent the values of a culture” (72), and the way that “genre systems are as much about disputes, maintenance, and shifting of boundaries” (73). Thus, it is no wonder that feminists coming to academic would question those kinds of boundaries.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Martha Nussbaum: Poetic Justice

I have journals due in one of my current MA classes, but the instructor is only going to glance at them. I have done all of this work for very little return. I know, a journal is often written only for oneself, but I also wrote it as a conversation with the instructor which now will not happen. So as to make this a more fruitful endeavor, I am going to post some of the journals here. Enjoy and feel free to respond so as to make these truly a conversation.

I am reading an excerpt from a book for one of my classes by Martha Nussbaum. The book is Poetic Justice and the chapter is on the literary imagination. I am reading about the mistrust of literature as subversive by people who are only interested in economics and science and my mind started to wander. (This is actually why it takes me so long to read a book anymore, because for every 250 words I read I write 500). Is there really any way for human beings to get away from purpose? Do we automatically ascribe purpose to every single thing we do, even writing literature? Is there really such a thing as purposeless human activity and what is it in our drive to make meaning that even after the fact, even when we might have thought we had done something purposeless, that we have to assign a purpose to it. I like to think that some writing is just an end in itself, but other times, if I am challenged and on the defensive about “what use is poetry” which I think was originally proposed by Amiri Baraka but I know from my friend in Minneapolis, performance poetry J. Otis Powell! as he used to stand up in front of a 3-piece jazz combo and declaim and question it, I can always assign a purpose to poetry, even avant-garde Dadaistic poetry.

And since we are talking about purpose, I can bring this all the way back around to my BIG paper for this class. The point of my thesis is that Dadaistic avant-garde poetry can liberate the imagination and get us out the quagmire of thought that we find ourselves in and that in this day and age, relevant to Derrida’s law of genre, poetry is in the unique position not to have to be linear anymore the way it was in Aristotle’s day, when it was the only literary game in town. Now poetry can be pure flights of fancy, which is not to say that it is purposeless. Quite the contrary, is the argument that I would make.

And I notice that I start all of my sentences, my paragraphs, or at least most of them, with conjunctions, which is actually how I write when I am free associating, like I do in journals. And I start thinking again about my paper and what purpose I want it to serve, if I want it to be an exploration of something I haven’t explored enough of, like Helene Cixous, if I want it to be about someone that I have studied before and develop expertise on, like Shelley Jackson, or if I want it to be “in service to” my thesis. And so I have written or argued myself right back where I started.

But, I could add, at least having put it down on paper, it is in my mind now and I can start trying to narrow it down somewhat. Thus, I have accomplished something “of purpose” with these ramblings.

Better luck next time.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Amy Shuman: Gender and Genre

I have journals due in one of my current MA classes, but the instructor is only going to glance at them. I have done all of this work for very little return. I know, a journal is often written only for oneself, but I also wrote it as a conversation with the instructor which now will not happen. So as to make this a more fruitful endeavor, I am going to post some of the journals here. Enjoy and feel free to respond so as to make these truly a conversation.

I remember working with Amy Shuman's essay “Gender and Genre,” which I had wanted to revisit but for the life of me, I can't find that ONE course reader I had from NYU that has it in there. I even know which course reader it was and what color it is, but it must still be packed away. So, I found the article and have ordered the book from Amazon and I will write about it more extensively within the next two weeks. What I do recall is that it was a response to Derrida's “Law of Genre” and that it influenced what I had talked about in my presentation. Again, we talked a LOT about feminism and women's words when I was at NYU. And it now occurs to me that there are a lot of women in English studies, both at WIU and in general.

Richard Schechner, one of my professors at NYU asked a question about the relationship of gender to teaching and he said that it has traditionally been a women's position and that was why it paid so low. I held, and I still do, that it has not traditionally been women's work – but I think that we w ere arguing two different things. I believe that he was thinking about the education of young children, which for the last 150 years or so has been done by women. I am thinking of university educations which women have only been accepted into relatively recently and in greater numbers within the past 40 or so years. But thinking about the “demise of the humanities,” this has been an area that women have been drawn to and so it shouldn't come as a surprise at all that now that women have rushed to the academy to join the ranks of the humanities, that people now think the humanities don't matter and that they should be defunded. But they can't close ranks forever. As they defund the humanities, or at least try to do so, more women will enter the sciences and other fields that have also traditionally been male-dominated, and there will be no place for the patriarchally-minded among us to go where there are no women, unless we have something like a Margaret Atwood Handmaid's Tale kind of reversal of society, which is not as improbable as it seems, given what happened in Germany between the Weimar and the Nazis, wherein there was a political rejection of the open climate of the Weimar.

All of this, again, brings me back to “Gender and Genre,” about a possible “rejection” or at least radical rethinking of academic work and what it means to be academic, what it means for women who have traditionally done “expressive” writing – short stories and fiction, storytelling, to rehink and remake what constitutes academic writing. Is it necessarily less rigorous? What potential do we have to remake academic writing and not have it devalued, like so many things in culture become once they are associated with women and with women's work? Is rigor always to be male-defined or adhered to by male academic standards that we had no role in setting, but must uphold and maintain? And if we choose to change those standards or to not uphold and maintain those standards any more, will our own work be less valid? What would the new standards look like?

And now I am thinking about Rebekah Buchan's class on digital humanities, and she talked about work that was being published online for critiques to happen online. I can't remember now if it was said that the work was never really considered finished, but I tend to think not. And that's what I tell students who come to the writing center, and that's what I even tell my students in class – that no piece of writing is ever really finished, but that at some point you have to finish your writing of it and turn it in for the time being. Although I know that I certainly go back to my writing all the time and borrow from it, revise it, rewrite it, and whatever else there is to “redo” from it. The internet and the digitization of literature is changing everything. I put a lot of my work out on and in some cases, that might disqualify it for publication in scholarly journals or at least will mean that I might have to “cheat” and pull my work down from site like that in order to get it published by a journal that “counts” as academic and rigorous in the eyes of academia. There is a lot of talk, and always has been, among creative writers who are academics, because it is possible to amass a whole lot of writing credits that are not “acceptable” to the university because they are not peer-reviewed journals. This is especially true for experimental or avant-garde writers.

Despite all the talk about interdisciplinary work being the rage, the future of academia, that is also not true. Disciplines are still very much in place and defending their turf.

So, I ask you, what is a genre-jumper, an academic/non-academic, someone for whom writing is both a social and an anti-social act, to do?

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Cross-Genre Writing and In-Class Performance/Presentation

I have journals due in one of my current MA classes, but the instructor is only going to glance at them. I have done all of this work for very little return. I know, a journal is often written only for oneself, but I also wrote it as a conversation with the instructor which now will not happen. So as to make this a more fruitful endeavor, I am going to post some of the journals here. Enjoy and feel free to respond so as to make these truly a conversation.

Women Writing Culture was a book used in my feminist ethnography class at NYU. That was a very important book because it showed examples of women writing ethnography as stories, plays, and poems. It talked about the fact that often male anthropologists were off talking to the men of a community who gave the “official” story of their tribe, village, or group while their wives were talking to the women, getting information on their day-to-day lives and writing it up as short stories. At NYU, we were actively encouraged to play around with genres and in fact, my department chair gave a reading of sonnets that she had written in response to Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. It always disappointments me when I am in a program that discourages such experimentation and that is why I wanted to take that freedom when it was offered in this class.

I was using the poetic technique, which I have often seen in prose as well, of numbering items to make it cohere, turning back on itself, without having to have formal transition. Because I had a limited amount of time, and because I was working with disparate theories and incidents that would all come back around to the main point, I decided on that format. It was a very conscious decision once I wrote my initial text.

My reading of the text was a performance in itself, meant to be like a lecture. When I directed a play at Scott Community College, a version of Antigone that I had put together myself from Sophocles, Georges Bataille, and Kurt Schwitters, I had the academic chorus instead of a Greek chorus, reciting lines from Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim¸ asking how psychoanalysis would be different today if Freud had started with Antigone rather than Oedipus. Drawing from that experience and the “performance of academia,” that is why I decided to stand up and read the text. Also, as I write this, I think about how much academic work was not necessarily published as a text initially, but as a speech, a class, conference proceedings, etc., including Saussure’s Course In General Linguistics, much, if not all of Lacan’s various Seminars, Derrida’s “Law of Genre,” etc.

I really took umbrage at the comment, made later, that my presentation was personal expression, but by then we had moved on and I didn’t feel like bringing the conversation back to my “lecture.” I do, however, want to defend it. I dislike most poetry that is solipsistic, that deals purely with the feelings of the author and nothing else, and I also dislike teaching theories that focus only on interiority and self-expression. As Kirsten and I were saying, we have a student who comes into the writing center who was obviously taught using those kinds of theories in the 1970s and thinks that writing is only about his impressions and ideas, and we are having a hard time getting him to see that yes, it is that, but it is also much more than that, especially at the graduate level. So that kind of “self-expression” talk tends to really push my buttons.

While my presentation had much of me in it, and much creativity, I also had a lot of research and a lot of other people’s ideas. I cited Barthes, Foucault, Cixous, and Derrida as well as some lesser-known theories. I also cited primary research I have been doing for several years into different ways that we can help students by not only giving them alternative assignments, but alternative ways to complete those assignments, like my spontaneous research. Surrealism is very interested in consciousness and in unconscious processes. That is why the Surrealists were so interested in Freud and so disappointed when he did not reciprocate their feelings. I believe such concerns are very neglected in educated students and I look to my own levels of interest/disinterest, my own areas where I have divided attention and trouble getting my own work done to think about ways to help my students. Many people in graduate school are “model students.” That’s how we got this far. Most of us are teaching students who are not “model” student or who live in less-than-perfect situations that do not allow them to get their work done. So I ask myself how I can use my own barriers, my own divided attention, combined with my interest in creative writing and in surrealism, to help my students to get their work finished?
I also disagree with the comments that genre is important because it helps us to know how to read a text. After I had thought about that for a while, I came to the conclusion that it is not genre that tells us how to read something, but it is the content itself. If the content is all focused on dog obedience, for example, you can use poems, stories, and research to explain dog obedience to a reader. And in this post-modern world, authors do that all the time! It seems to me that it is only in academic writing, not popular writing, that genre is insisted upon. Corporations use actors to help with their corporate training. They do use poetry and short stories to promote diversity. And three articles that I use in my English and speech classes talk about the value of storytelling to help people learn. Outside of academia, people push the boundaries all the time, using humor, poetry, and storytelling to train and get their points across.

Partially, I take blame myself for people not “getting” what I was talking about. I feel that if you are going to do something that is unusual, you need to prepare people for it somewhat. When I do an avant garde performance at an open mic, for example, I will give the audience an instruction not to “overthink” the poetry and try to figure it out, but just to roll with the images. So in retrospect, I might have done this with my class presentation – given them a line or two of instructions. I guess I thought they would “get” what I was trying to do rather than being adversarial. That might also mean that I was attacking some very closely held beliefs that they have about genre.


Here is my class presentation:

One Day in the Life of French Theory
Featuring non-French actors

Michel Foucault is collecting objects and placing them – on the wall, on the table, etc., asking himself where these go in the oeuvre. Maybe picks things out of the trashbin of literary history.

Voila! Stephen King’s Parking Tickets
Voila! Nietzsche’s Laundry List
Voila! Hemingway’s hunting license

Takes a large stack of paper out of the trash and holds it up for the audience to see.

Voila! Shakespeare’s supposed (typed) manuscript of his complete works

He sits down at that point and starts going through it.

Barthes enters the room.

Barthes: L’auter est mort! Vive le lecteur!
He looks through a book and then declaims/asks: Who is speaking?

Foucault: What does it matter who is speaking!?

Enter Cixous:

Of course it matters, you patriarchal windbags. The author isn’t dead, She’s right here!” Mutters to herself: “Why is that men on the left cannot see their own blind spots? You go on all day about the oppressors and post-colonial this and post-structural that but then you deny us our voices when it suits you, when you don’t feel the need for an author.

“Who makes me write, moan, sing, dance? Who gives me the body that is never afraid of fear? Who writes me? . . . When I have finished writing, when we have returned to the air of the song that we are, the body of texts that we will have made for ourselves will become one of its names among so many others. In the beginning, there can be only dying, the abyss, the first laugh”

Foucault and Barthes either look up and listen, then all continue with what they are doing what in the background. Cixous begins reading her book (Coming to Read) semi-silently to herself while Barthes is flipping through his book (Image, Music, Text) occasionally muttering something out of it. All three fade off as Laura begins.


I. The Law of Genre, or Genre’s Genre

Since the beginning of time, a student paper might read, since the invention of the alphabet, since humans began to carve sentences into stone, put ink to papyrus, they have questioned the nature of writing and of those who write – the author.

I am always trying to subvert academic writing whenever I get the chance, to cross boundaries. To risk annihilation, to risk death. To risk, as Hamlet puts it, those thousand natural deaths that flesh is heir to.” As an author, one who lays her ego on the line to be examined, challenged, refuted, ‘tis a consummation I do NOT devoutly desire, but to which I subject myself, nonetheless.
Derrida says I shouldn’t mix creative work with academic work. His “Law of Genre” states, “I will not mix genres. Genres are not to be mixed.” But Derrida is a postmodernist. Of course genres are to be mixed. Unless he is being ironic. Unless he is pulling our legs. Moreover, it is impossible to mix genres because ultimately the original genre becomes very pregnant, giving birth to a new genre. This is what happened when we mixed drama and poetry, poetry and storytelling, o or most recently, fiction and nonfiction. They resulted in the separate genres of poetry and drama, of poetry and fiction, of creative nonfiction. Perhaps that is the consequence that Derrida is talking about. It is not dangerous to mix genres at all, but very thrilling. But then Derrida goes on to talk about the genre of genre and all of my imaginative imaginings go out the window as I becoming once again confused and numb. So let us move on before we all succumb to that fate.

II. The Death of the Author

In thinking about the “Death of the Author,” I now see that death everywhere. I see it in all writings and I think about it in my own writing. What does it mean? I don’t take it as a literal death nor a hedge against death, although many have talked before about how at least as an author you have a chance to be remembered, to live on. But then I think about my own writing, and when I am done writing a piece, I can admire it, love it, cite it, quote it. Not, I think, out of a sense of narcissism, although that is always possible. But because I, as a writer, die when the piece is completed and I, as a reader, am born.

Cheryl Walker says that Barthes’ “Death of the Author” seems more extreme than Foucault’s “The Author Function,” but I do not see it that way, because Barthes, as our textbook tells us, was caught in the shift from modernism, with its ideas of liberalism, to post-modernism. Thus, with the “Death of the Author” comes the birth of the reader, and that is certainly a way of democratizing reading, of taking it out of the hands of English departments and critics and those “in the know.”

III. Dividing Attention

There are also several points I want to make with this presentation. One thing that as a performer I am interested in is divided attention. What do we pay attention to and what falls out? What do we tune in and out of and what do we sacrifice by our choices? In today’s society, we are faced with this all the time, even as we read. I also want participation, which is akin to Barthes’ “Death of the Author.” The reader (audience) participates in making meaning (performing). It is not just a passive activity. It is never just a passive activity, a past-time, a pass-time. To read is to participate. To read out loud is to perform.

IV. The Oeuvre

Then there are the questions of what goes into the oeuvre, as Foucault asks, and for this occasion, I have written a poem, called Foucault’s Laundry List: (Clear throat)

Nietzsche’s Laundry List

How am I to exist now that I am
Alone in this world
A character without an author
Without a function I am adrift afloat
No god to tell me what to do how
Am I to distinguish from
What is good and what is merely
The Detritus of history?
O, Pirandello, o Barthes and Foucault. Who
Will lead me down the proper path, show me
The way, teach me to distinguish between
Hemingway’s hunting license or
Stephen King’s parking tickets or
Nietzche’s laundry list:
Suit coat
Dress pants
Socks and garter
Bear skin
Tiger paws (with claws)
Straight jacket
Flattened bowler hat
Paper pulled from pockets full of notes and numbers
The stardust from infinite far away planets
Oh, who will tell me what it all means
And if it is collectible part of
The canon.

With the internet, we no longer have to make choices about what goes into an oeuvre. We can very well include Nietzsche’s laundry list to his oeuvre, his collected works. There are writers who have included only margin notes, without the original text. There are authors who create their work by blacking out part or most of the text. Andy Warhol used to buy things, towels and underwear and clothes, and send them straight to a storage unit to become a permanent part of his “collection.” The internet affords us the “space” to collect everything that might some day become useful to us.

V. Ecriture Feminine

I am also interested in feminine writing, which Cixous, as a “second-wave” surrealist (and there are 3rd wave surrealists too practicing right now), contends can be nonlinear and embodied. I want to show all of this even as I comment upon it. I want to make my academic work poetic, a performance, to make my teaching work surrealistic, to make my poetry and art academic. What does it mean for Cixous to talk about an embodied writing? There are people who practice what is called somatic writing, writing from the body. But I don’t really know what that is. But I have, with my illustration, the performance before my piece, to show, not tell, to have an embodiment of what Barthes, Foucault and Cixous are talking about when they talk about authors and functions and writing.

VI. Surrealism and Teaching

I have developed a series of writing assignments for my students that are inspired by surrealism. I have them do “chance operations” in organizing their work, randomly rearranging their paragraphs, which they are reluctant to do at first, many believing the way they have written their paper is the most logical way. This allows them to see other ways that they might have arranged their writing. I have often done this with my own academic writing and found it to work better myself. (I NEVER ask my students to do anything I haven’t done first. ) I have them do “spontaneous research” in which they dive right in to the middle of an article, randomly pick a paragraph, and write in response to that paragraph. I have them write with their eyes closed as a warm up, which they are also resistant to at first. However, as with Cixous’ feminine writing, ecriture feminine, I have noticed a gender gap, with female students being more open to this than my male students.
As a teacher, I am reborn a reader once more.

VII. Dare to Suck

As one of my poetry colleagues used to say at the open mics in Minneapolis, you have to “dare to suck.” I am taking that challenge to heart. I know that all writing is rewriting, may be rewritten one day for a future audience, and so I have faith my oeuvre may contain my ecriture feminine, with all of its glorious mistakes and successes.

I have embraced failure. This is either going to go magnificently or fall on its face. I am ok with either. I will lose a little sleep if it falls on its face, I will toss and turn for a night or two, feel foolish, and get on with my life.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Wolfgang Iser and Reader-Response Theory

I have journals due in one of my current MA classes, but the instructor is only going to glance at them. I have done all of this work for very little return. I know, a journal is often written only for oneself, but I also wrote it as a conversation with the instructor which now will not happen. So as to make this a more fruitful endeavor, I am going to post some of the journals here. Enjoy and feel free to respond so as to make these truly a conversation.

A brief story. I had a friend who wrote what I considered to be a brilliant poem. In it was the line “brown leaves change and paper.” I had always read that as brown leaves change into paper. He insists that it is just a list. Now, the claim could be made that with proper punctuation, this could be cleared up, like the Facebook memes that tell why grammar is important. (“Let’s eat, Grandma.” Vs. “Let’s eat Grandma.”) But in another way, this gets to reader-response theory. Most of us had only heard the poem as it was read at an open mic and so our interpretation was based on the words, not on the punctuation. The pauses were assumed to be dramatic pauses, not a sequential list. And I was not alone in how I had interpreted the poem. Many other people who talked to the poet said that they had assumed the same thing, but he insisted that it was just a list, as he had intended.

As I read the introduction to Wolfgang Iser, I read the objections to his theory about the “dynamic interaction of text and reader” (1522). I am reading how some thought that his theory would destabilize the text and that “there might be an infinite number of possible readings for every text,” to which I have written “Horrors!” in the margin. Obviously, it depends on the text. If one is reading/writing a medical textbook, you do not want an infinite number of possible readings. You want only one. If you are reading “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” although TS Eliot might want you to “get” only his intent in writing the piece, it is possible and no less desirable, for every person to interpret the poem in an idiosyncratic way, unique to that individual. There is no harm to that, and you can even acknowledge that x is what Eliot intended, but c is the reading that you got from the text based on your gender, class, education, worldview, etc.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Smilefish: An Ekphrastic Exquiste Corpse from the Midwest Writing Center Conferene

Smilefish mama mother
of all other fishes star
fishes smiling whales and trouts
or bass (I don't really know trout from bass
but I don know whats and sharks and jel
lyfish) she is mother of them
all--even octopi. She smiles with her
shades too cool for school-
-s of fishes -- see what I did
there? -- legs ready to evolve into
animal mammal on land smilefish
mother of us birthing fish
and octopi and seals and otters and
birthing us like Eve, Lilith, Mary, Kali
(who destroys AND creates,
eats her young), Mothers mamas
of us all passing on smiles and
shades and her lovely patterns for our
clothes. We will all be striped like
she is, one way or another, showing our
stripes what we are made of our
sharkskin feet and our scaley
pants and our mohawk
heads in punk rock defiance of
species, of habitat. WE live
anywhere we want and we
smile like the motherfish.

Resistance Poetry Wall - 100,000 Poets for Change

100,000 Poets for Change, which sponsors an annual international day of poetry the last Saturday in September has opened up a Poetry Resistance Wall on their blog. Please go there and check out the poetry and post some of your own.

Here are some pictures from the Quad Cities' 100,000 Poets for Change events in 2014 and 2016.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Novel forms

I have been re-reading the chapters of "My Accursed Novel" as I have called it and I have started to see that they are not really that bad. In fact, I think some of the chapters are quite good. The problem is that I can't really get it into the appropriate "novel format," which is a consistency of time with a recognizable plot. But then, I don't write traditionally any more with ANY format, so why would I think that I could or would write a traditionally structured novel?

So, now that all of this stuff is out there and has been seen and read by at least a dozen of you (I am of course being modest. It looks like 2 dozen people have actually read the stories). But there has to be an even wonkier way of organizing this work.

If you have any thoughts, let me know!

Friday, October 28, 2016

What is Writing?

So I am writing an "academic poem" for my writing studies class. It will be a very long poem/academic paper, although we don't really speak of epic poems anymore, since this won't really tell an epic kind of story. But it will include a lot of little stories about Cixous and Kristeva and Derrida and Barthes and many others. Here is the beginning of it, which is just kind of a riff for now.

Prologue: What is writing?

What is writing? Writing is everything. Writing is
communication, imagination, learning, history, memory, language, there is
nothing outside the text says Derrida, and I believe it and I don't there are moments,
says the artist Kiam Marcelo Junio, an artist from Chicago, says that there are moments
when we forget ourselves, they are only moments but they are perfect
moments when we forget ourselves drop our facades because writing although
it is expression is also an unnatural act . We do not naturally create texts – only now
we do. We do because it is all we know, so perhaps Derrida, loathe
as I am to admit it might be wait for it . . .
right. Maybe there is nothing outside the text because we can't remember
anything outside the text it's almost the way we can't remember
(according to the god people anyway) paradise eden there are
no perfect moments only text. But I digress . . .
Kiam Marcelo Junio . . . Chicago artist . . . says that there are moments when we forget ourselves
and lose our sense of self- consciousness and just exist

But writing is all the knowledge and creativity and creation and evolution and revolution and punk rock and heavy metal music and hymns and poems and treatises and manifestos and novels and academic articles and everything that we have learned and try to learn and strive to learn and know and catalogue and categorize and put into boxes marked kingdom phylum genre order class marxist proletariat species human and text and chora and Oedipus and his daddy Freud and his Mama Jocasta and Hamlet and Cleopatra the queen and the movie the woman(en) and the myth(s). How can you not be self-conscious with the weight of all that history upon you and all that knowledge and that was only half a paragraph or six stanzas if you will.

There is something outside the text. Unnamable feelings and joy and wild ecstatic movement and birds songs but the minute we identify it as anything at all, it moves inside the textual fence as it moves into consciousness from unconsciousness and there it sits until it becomes text and writing.

And so again, I will say, what is writing? Like Amiri Baraka once said, I think, of what use is
poetry? At least, a poet friend of mine in Minneapolis, J.
Otis Powell! With an exclamation point in his last name
used to recite a poem that he said was based upon Amiri Baraka's question of what
use is poetry ? Or as Paul McCartney, in the song Mrs. Vanderbilt,
(which is on the album Band on the Run) says “what's the use of anything?”
What's the use of the text? If we can't get outside of the text anymore,
then that makes the text a kind of . . . ideology since theory tell us
that it is impossible to get outside of our own ideologies, outside of our own heads, outside of
the text. Stupid Derrida. I hate it when he's right (write)(rite).
Death of the Author:
God and Mother

Think of the “death of the author” in terms of religion and childbirth,
which are not so far apart and which have been in the West,
uniquely masculine / feminine realms.

Death of the Author:

A Parable

In Christianity, Jesus (the author) must die and be resurrected so that believers (readers) can have safe passage to heaven (the text). This is the male-centered conception of the author as the all-knowing keeper of the text and of meaning. And in fact, Barthes speaks of “the ‘message’ of the Author-God” and says that “to refuse to fix its meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law” .

Women, however, have historically had a different relationship to birth and death, with many medieval women dying in childbirth. In this model, the woman (author) dies so that her child (the reader) may be born, but that child will be orphaned, with no one to guide her through life (the text). There is a “death/not death,” a voluntary withdrawal that happens here that can be seen as Cixous’ metaphor for the author. In her manifesto “Coming to Writing,” there are extended passages that are about losing yourself in mad love (amour fou, as Andre Breton wrote of), to writing, to a feminine writing. This is not a nihilistic death, as might be seen in Foucault or Barthes, but a joyous celebration of what it is to write. “Text: not a detour, but the flesh at work in a labor of love” (42). As if she were taking the death of the author literally, then, she says “in the beginning, there can be only dying, the abyss, the first laugh” (41).

A Joyous Nonsense/Non-sense: The speech of schizophrenics

Jameson called Surrealism “schizophrenic speech.” Jameson, like Freud before him, was baffled by both Dada and Surrealism and their attempts at nonlinear thought and speech to express the unconscious and to get at the unconscious, to free us all, particularly from the confines of so-called rational scientific thought .

I want to write something meaningful about
Surrealism something academically valid not to make myself a known entity employable or a respected scholar but because surrealism is meaningful to me, it makes me happy and it makes me feel liberated and I want other(s), maybe even big Others to feel liberated and feel the healing hands of Hannah Hoch or Hugo Ball or Raoul Hausmann and some other Dadaist or Surrealist with an H name so I can get good aliteration at the same time, be poetic, while I also tell you some very smart things about Surrealism.
They say writing about Surrealism is like dancing about architecture except that once I looked it up on Google the actual quote is that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I could try to make the connection between music and Surrealism. They both work on an unconscious level. See, it didn't even take me long. But I am a lousy dancer and I don't know how to dance about architecture, although I know many good dancers and they tell me that dancing about architecture is actually a pretty good thing to do. I trust them.