Les miens
Claude Closky
Éditions Al Dante, 2009

Gauging the relationship between conceptual writing and flarf has not been a particularly easy thing. They arose at the same time as “movements” (a word that always deserves the surveillance of quotation marks, as it is now deployed by all parties with at least a pinch of defensive irony, coyly anxious to assure us that there is neither a political program or a marketing scheme in place). Indeed, by the measure of the longue durée, they are more or less simultaneous.

Moreover, they share certain characteristics, beyond their joint challenge to the banalities of “the poetic” itself. The most obvious is the reliance on found text. The most forceful is the entanglement with the most recent modes of language’s technological reproducibility, especially but not solely internet-based. These two traits come together in a third category, generated text, which is not exactly found text as such, but issued forth or gathered by some algorithm. We could say that both conceptual writing and flarf formalize language attributable neither to the nominal author nor to some other named individual. All language comes from people, we can probably agree (or not, for this is merely axiomatic, not true or false). Conceptual writing and flarf are different approaches to language that doesn’t come from a proper name, but appropriates and is appropriated by names.

But we should not overstate their similarities. They have different concerns, finally, and these are much-debated. If both are compelled by what we might term impoetic language, flarf seems interested in discovering the poetic within that field, finding the excess and alterity that once defined poetic language but now must be found elsewhere, within the circuits of ersatz fame and junkspeech, within the anonymized and reshuffled errancies of various machinic protocols (whether it is the Google search algorithm, or a purported human adapting herself to the imperatives of a virtual chatroom). Whereas conceptual writing most often seems committed to preserving exactly this impoetic character: flat, uncreative, in some sense unreadable, reports from a world where the romantic excess of spirit, if it still exists, no longer has a home in language.

And yet (”and yet” will be our code here, marking the turns in the trail of dialectical thought), conceptual writing may be the more poetic of the two, for whatever that’s worth. Let us arrange all linguistic communication on a continuum. At the near terminus, we’ll put language that depends almost entirely on denotation and connotation, on whatever can be gleaned via the dictionary and thesaurus for each word. At the far terminus is communication based entirely on the other elements of language: sound and vision, basically, from rhyme and rhythm and other sonic repetition-with-variation, to placement in the phrase or sentence or on the page. The impression of a sound or cluster of sounds, of a shape or cluster of shapes.

It is apparent that nothing reaches either extreme, or finds a pure state; communication is always an admixture. But we can still place given modes along the continuum: something like a cookbook recipe would slip toward the near terminus. Poetry is the form of linguistic communication that drifts toward the distant shore.

One might suggest that conceptual writing endeavors to refute this claim with its flat facticity; one must reckon, however, with its desire that this flat facticity remain unread. No one reads a book of conceptual poetry for semantic content, for meaning in that sense — if they read it at all. One no more reads the 111,000th word of DAY than one reads a full transcription of a night of sound poetry (hence the great affinity between the two). Still, conceptual writing communicates — even without much engagement with the semantic. It is entirely poetic. More so than flarf, which in this regard is far more impoetic.

And yet we now risk distinguishing too strongly between two poetic variants which are almost entirely conjoined. They are, irreducibly, responses to the late-modern regime of superinformation: to the surplus of informatic material that has come to dominate the post-industrial core. They are the trace of management strategies developed in response to this surplus; they wrangle the too-much of information (I hesitate to give in to the popular term, “the information sublime,” which tends to abstract and to affect-bathe a very concrete matter — but it’s not all wrong). The expansion of economic structures throughout space and time (globalization and financialization, respectively), and the consequent need for expanded command-and-control over these networks: this called into being a cadre of information workers. Conceptual writers and flarfists are the aristocrats of this cadre. Like aristocrats of yore, they are largely unpaid. Like aristocrats of yore, many can afford to be unpaid, and these have more room to move.

In the social coliseum of art, they have seemed sometimes to be at odds, struggling to find points of aesthetic distinction adequate to the cultural differences. Sometimes they are aligned, as the heirs of the great Seventies avant-gardes. Sometimes their relation takes the form of friendly rivalry, as “An Evening of Contemporary Poetry: Conceptual Writing and The Flarf Collective,” at the Whitney Museum. More and more, it seems like they offer an opposition that is less like the lions and Christians, and more like the Harlem Globetrotters and Washington Generals, the alleged opponents who are part of a unified spectacle. If one of them has come to seem like the winner, night after night, the official winner as it were, this is perhaps less a matter of aesthetic victory than capital outlay. If there is one thing that is certain, it is that one of the sides is better funded, better dressed, and better-loved in institutional high castles, and that this had made a great difference. It does not make them better, but neither does it make them worse. It makes them the first name on the marquee.

Recently I read a book which seems to have its way with both poetries. It is one of those minimal French books with no graphic, just an off-white cover with author, title, and publishing house. It is called Les miens, by Claude Closky, published by Éditions Al Dante, a lovely press born in Aix and living in Marseilles. The book is subtitled (maybe it is part of the title) suivi des Biennales. I am not quite sure how to translate this: My People, I think, subheaded, tracking the Biennials.

It is a highly formal work: 72 sonnets rhymed in the Italian manner, six beats to the line. From a French poet we hear this as the alexandrine, the default French line from Racine down to the twentieth century. The book is untranslated from the original, but after the title, this turns out not to be too much of an issue, as the poems are composed exclusively of proper names, first and last, often two syllables each (Adam Goldberg, Cindy Sherman, MC Hammer) but with many exceptions (Julian Lennon, El Lissitzky, Julita Wójcik). My favorite line is: “T Pain Hervé Vilard Victoria Principal.” What can I say? It speaks to me.

The book’s entanglement with fame, and the extent to which it depends both on Googling and on getting us to Google, is flarfian to the core. But the meticulous regimenting of the material, blank and denuded to the point of unreadability, is all conceptual. The non-constraint of Petrarch has elements of each, though it tilts toward the conceptual; similarly the transparent rigor of uncreativity, the absolute ununiqueness. The fact that the surplus of information being managed is that of digitally available celebrity: flarf. That the celebrity appears bracketed in specific by art world success, albeit in the loosest ways (Sean Preston Federline slips in somewhere): this is a habit more common to conceptual writing. The book is something like a canny hybridization of the two approaches, in one package.

And yet something here is unique. As a language practice, Les miens puts both conceptual writing and flarf to shame. Can we even say this book is in French? Once I have left behind the cover, I cannot myself experience the book as being in anything but English, and American English at that. But this isn’t so. How often do we read an entire book without knowing in what language it’s written?

We often say that celebrity needs no translation, that Madonna (let’s say) is famous in every language; this is in fact an extra-linguistic claim about the universality of charisma, the nature of the image, the inexorability of global marketing. But if it is self-evident that proper names in fact constitute a metalanguage which requires no translation for users of the Roman alphabet — and that this is only true in certain historical situations, i.e. the double triumph of global information networks and global celebrity — that these are two faces of a single process — this is a different thought, and one I hadn’t had before.

In the future everyone will be nameless for fifteen minutes. Try to enjoy it.