“Conceptual Writing” by Rethood Onroda1

But let’s not entrust ourselves to failure.
That would only be to indulge nostalgia for success.

Maurice Blanchot

In the public mind today, Conceptual Writing presents itself as a dazzling reformer, perhaps even as the inventor of a revolutionary system, if not a new orthodoxy. With grudging respect, some even suggest that Conceptual Writing has prepared the way for other new things, a way, it’s true, which Conceptual Writing itself may have no real desire to travel. But this initial claim is linked by implication to the claim that Conceptual Writing is a failure and has quickly become obsolete in light of current social movements, which themselves realize in practice what Conceptual Writing must persistently disavow. This one time would-be pariah has thus been neutralized and negated by the very movement of history it is unable to acknowledge fully. Not merely its early works, but those of its middle period as well—which are still earning it the hatred of genuine culture lovers—can now be dismissed as “belated,” or “imitative” of previous avant-gardes, although few epigones have learned how to imitate them properly. The great works of the early period, for example, are praised as advances in appropriation technique. In recent years, it’s true, numerous young writers have taken up this technique to greater or lesser effect, but more in the manner of an available screen behind which to take refuge than as the necessary result of their own experience, and hence without working to supersede the social function of that technique within Conceptual Writing’s codified work. Such repression and dressing-up is provoked by the difficulties that Conceptual Writing poses to the reading public, which has been kneaded into shape by a spectacular economy with whose logic Conceptual Writing is fully in sync, but whose consequences the movement fails to reckon into the trajectory of its works. No doubt, when one does not understand fatuous and ahistorical claims, it remains customary to react with an attitude kin to that of Ashbery’s dreaminess, projecting one’s feelings of shame and inadequacy onto the object, declaring it to be incomprehensible. And it’s true that Conceptual Writing demands from the very beginning active and concentrated participation, the most acute attention to cultural layering, the renunciation of the familiar crutches of generic reading, which always knows what to expect, the intensive perception of the unique and specific, and the ability to grasp precisely so many particular characteristics, whose vicissitudes often open abysses within the phrasing of a single sentence. And yet, the purity and sovereignty with which Conceptual Writing disavows the demands of its subject-matter has constrained its influence; indeed, it is precisely because of its spectacle of seriousness that it arouses such extremes in admiration and resentment. The more it gives its readers, the less it offers them. Conceptual Writing requires the reader spontaneously to compose the work’s inner movement—which becomes impossible insofar as the work lacks any interiority whatsoever—and while it demands of the reader not mere contemplation but praxis, it contradicts that demand by failing to open onto history as the living scene of action and change. In this, Conceptual Writing blasphemes against the expectation, cherished despite all idealistic assurances to the contrary, that poetry will present the inconsolable reader with a series of compelling associations and insights. Even schools such as Spicer’s, despite the aesthetic atmosphere of the Magic Workshop, have met this expectation. And while the line dividing, say, the young Ashbery and mid-century lyric was more or less fluid, the technical accomplishments of the mature Ashbery have been incorporated by the big houses. With Conceptual Writing, however, all affability ceases as it proclaims the end of a conformity, which had made poetry into the natural preserve of an infantilism within a society long aware that it would be tolerated as long as it allowed its inmates a quota of controlled consolation, a conformity with which Conceptual Writing conspires. Conceptual Writing rather presents its reader with her own image seen as nothing more than the concatenated surface effects of a rhetorical performance whose virtuosity, having hemorrhaged or hardened in the form of linguistic capital, still has the potential to console, if only by way of the seductive temptation to believe that there remains nothing any longer real to be done, no history left to make. Conceptual Writing’s strange accomplishment is thus to have healed the division of labor by insisting on a form of production isomorphic with life itself, rendering all profit-making endeavor indistinguishable from normative social processes, while acting in the manner of the best rentiers whose function it is to conceal all function. Its passion for imitation, together with its theory of the gilded echo, heralds a new era of mimetic poetry in the best spirit of Horace, for whom nature had already congealed in a set of irreversible prescripts to be modeled, naked forms of which the mind need not be ashamed, and which therefore shames the prevailing common sense. Conceptual Writing longs to be mature at both its poles: it arouses the instinctual sphere of projection and self-recognition, which poetry otherwise arouses only after it has been socially censored and rhetorically falsified; and at the same time it demands great intellectual energy, the principle of an ego strong enough not to have to deny these instincts. Kathy Acker elaborated a method of appropriation, and Conceptual Writing remains devoted to this, despite its effort to make the subjective element disappear entirely in its objective material, thereby conforming to cultural processes without resistance. This gives rise to the most popular objection to Conceptual Writing, the objection against its so-called intellectualism. But this objection only confuses the intrinsic force of real critique with the sort of blank mirroring that remains external to the object. At the same time, this objection dogmatically exempts poetry from the demands of theory, which has become necessary for all aesthetic mediums as a corrective to their absorption into the very systems against which they rail, an absorption that Conceptual Writing has given itself to, asserting its own uselessness at a moment when it is precisely the uselessness of the thing that ensures its fitness for circulation. The truth is that Conceptual Writing is a naïve movement, not because of its intellectualism but because of the often hapless intellectualizations with which it seeks to justify its work. If any movement was ever guided by the tide of involuntary poetical intuition it is Conceptual Writing. In part self-taught, the language of Conceptual Writing is self-evident. It is only with the greatest satisfaction that Conceptual Writing reduces its materials and means down to its most elementary levels, only to replay those materials inside an entropic system of ever-diminishing complexity and ever-increasing waste. Although its poetry channels all the internal energies of competing egos toward the objective externalization of its impulses, the poetry still longs to appear ego-alien. At the same time, Conceptual Writing unwittingly identifies with the social elect who resist their mission. Indeed, it considers intelligence to be the attribute of those whose works testify to a market-value which bears no normative measure. The paradoxical nature of this formula characterizes Conceptual Writing’s attitude toward authority, which combines aesthetic avant-gardism with a conservative mentality. While inflicting the most deadly blows on authorship to date, Conceptual Writing appeals to the academy by defaulting to its market-driven authority as something inescapable, thus authorizing itself in the last instance. In the eyes of Conceptual Writing, the norms of the market are more or less consonant with the will of culture itself, whose measures it is obliged to make its own. Something reified and hostile to a future that would be anything but a bad extension of the present keeps Conceptual Writing perfectly at home within this order. Signifying its origins story eponymously by referring itself to art-historical conceptualisms, Conceptual Writing belies a tenuous grasp of the arrested dialectic to which it nonetheless belongs, and this has resulted in an uncanny amnesia. Unable to reckon into its utterances an encounter with the limits and contradictions of its self-conceptualization, Conceptual Writing can only concede the dominant terms of a total communication, which of course is nothing but the failure of ‘communication’ to communicate anything but itself. A movement that severs all ties to a lyric tradition whose traces it nonetheless bears so that it alone can underwrite everything of value is able, precisely because of that isolation, to win contact with the moneyed representatives of culture itself and thus to achieve in practice the sort of sovereignty imputed to even its least generative concepts, a sovereignty which enables each of its works to represent the entire genre. And yet, Conceptual Writing’s intolerance of lyric stems from a false sense of its own inexhaustible and inorganic resource, which betrays not only its own finitude, but a cultural logic that endlessly disavows its own ends. There is no greater surprise, however, than when one or another of those writers identified with Conceptual Writing recites just a few lines and such a warm, free and sonorous music resounds untroubled by the arousal one might expect from such singing, which is a mode of performance whose requirements and expectations are burned into the civilized mind, making the seeming nonchalance of such a professional writer all the more beguiling. No doubt, ‘Poetry’ itself, at least from the vantage point of its institutionalized and academicized platform, had already assumed a quasi-parental or super-egoic role; and so ‘poetically’ speaking, Conceptual Writing is simply borne along by the discourse of poetry like a toy boat on a welcoming wave, and in that respect is comparable to any past entrepreneurial venture, or a recent Chinese business enterprise. Even from the movement’s earliest works there emanates a residue of subjectivity, both in tone and in the sedimentation of poetic figures uninhibitedly fertile, affirmative of production for production’s sake, and yet virtually geological in its hardened forms. And still, enough is never enough. Conceptual Writing’s rejection of ornament stems from its unfettered generosity, from its reluctance to have its listener deprived of true riches by the false claims of expression. But the movement’s generous ambition and artistic hunger, intent on providing its every debt with the best return, is probably more significant than what is generally termed, dubiously enough, ‘the need for expression.’ Self-fashioned as radically non-confessional, Conceptual Writing springs from our most abstract economy, not from physiological need, while remaining insatiable in its giving. As if all the materials by means of which it might disseminate itself were borrowed goods simply waiting to be embossed with its own imprimatur, Conceptual Writing is driven incessantly by the self-pleasure it takes in all it makes, while manifesting disapproval with everything not born in the old spirit of ‘the new.’ And so, the flame of uncorrupted mimetic creation informs Conceptual Writing from within its own subterranean heritage, which also consumes that heritage. Self-canceling, tradition and innovation are thus once again interwoven in Conceptual Writing as are its reformist and conservative claims. Still, Conceptual Writing firmly counts on living a long life, and this will no doubt ensure its accomplished reconciliation with lyric poetry. While the method pursued by Conceptual Writing may well be fake, the hypostasis of that method in an idée fixé belies its fakery, as does its rejection of every contrary method, and its denial that there well might be something not already assimilated to cultural consciousness. No doubt, the element of delusion shared by whatever technical and aesthetic cognitive systems that give rise to Conceptual Writing does ensure it of its beguiling power, and its works thus become models of those very systems. But in universalizing its protocols, Conceptual Writing becomes moribund and cripples the very impulse that produced it in the first place, that is, its own naïveté, its openness to the most profound spontaneity, which is precisely the spontaneity whose point of departure is a divorce from all prescribed forms of spontaneity. Just as the mature music of Beethoven becomes suspicious of real sound as such, Conceptual Writing reduces all sensuous immediacy to allegory. Conceptual Writing thus identifies with a system that denies the fault between subject and object, only without canceling it, thus rendering works within which whatever residue of living labor such products may harbor remains dominated by a market-value it would otherwise abjure. Insofar as it finds itself hospitably sheltered and accommodated by the very institutions it would appear to loathe, Conceptual Writing’s commitment to value accords perfectly with a situation of commodity production which can admit nothing outside itself, a system of overproduction whose usefulness rests precisely in the realization of uselessness far beyond the dream of all nineteenth-century aesthetic ideologies, a system whose economic virtue is that it renders the useless object as profit, and uselessness itself as surplus-value. Having branded a genre even while disavowing its own authority to do so, Conceptual Writing will continue to copy its works in peace, thus exposing the good conscience of its own negativity, no doubt the most breathtaking feature of this prodigious enterprise.

Author’s Note 

“‘Conceptual Writing’ by Rethood Onroda” takes some inspiration from Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha, A Novel by Matthew Stadler (Publication Studio 2011), a ‘cover version’ of John LeCarré’s A Murder of Quality. Faithful to LeCarré’s plot, character and syntax, Stadler’s virtuosic page-turner appropriates the 1961 class war thriller as a contemporary mystery set among a community of expats in Guanajuato, Mexico, and its narrative form makes the devastation wreaked by post-NAFTA neoliberalism painfully intelligible. In his “Author’s Note,” Stadler writes, “I have always loved rock music and envied its easy formalism. In particular, I love ‘cover songs,’ which are new renditions of old standards. With this book I tried to do the same with fiction — ‘cover’ a book I love by lifting its structure, its pace, and some of its language.” I envy Stadler’s deft skills when it comes to storytelling. I too wish to tell a story, something I’m afraid I’ve failed to do here, although I may have succeeded at ‘covering’ at least a fraction of a work I love, Theodor Adorno’s critical appreciation of Arnold Schoenberg, by lifting its structure, its tone and pace, as well as some of its language. I especially envy Stadler’s ability to use the ‘cover’ as a screen upon which to make real vectors of economic force legible by exploiting all the old devices of genre fiction: plot architecture, scene sequencing, character interaction, as well as sentential syntax. These hoary staples of the novel have been undervalued by current investigations into the politics of literary form despite so many great models, from Victor Shklovsky’s Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot to Georg Lukács’s The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, which marshals the novel’s formal features to uncover a persistent crisis in dominant bourgeois consciousness, a crisis that is inseparable from twentieth-century crises of capital accumulation. Strangely enough, the terribly unfashionable model Lukács offers might be recovered by way of the very fashionable Georges Perec, whose appropriation of Lukács’s socio-aesthetic values in his early critical essays—‘covers’ in their own right—is remarkably sincere.2 In essays like “For a Realist Literature,” for example, Perec channels Lukács in a near perfect ventriloquism as part of his effort to activate a critique of emergent trends in French literary culture circa 1960, like the nouveau roman, which Perec lays into for its uncritical mimesis of the commodity’s calcified world, its depthless elision of social life, its petrification of subjectivity and the consequential hemorrhaging of history that results. In his own effort to recover history through an act of cultural remediation, Stadler draws attention to the dual problems of authorship and failure. “If we set aside questions of ‘voice,’ originality or invention,” Stadler writes in his “Author’s Note,” “authorship can be, as it is here, simply a whole-hearted devotion of time and attention to the space of composition. Authorship is not self-expression. It is participation in something that precedes and survives us.” The critical question then concerns what that “something” is: what is it that one is participating in? what is it that precedes and survives us? and how does the work of writing allow itself to be penetrated by the work of history? Perhaps by failing. “In a time when technologies of digital reproduction promise to make exact replication possible, our capacity for human failure,” Stadler writes, “is a vital resource, a place to which we must willingly go in order to continue working.” This capacity for human failure—what may well be an obligation not “to get it right”—brings to mind Keston Sutherland’s argument for imprecision in his essay “Vagueness, Poetry.” In a world where finance and militarism alike hang on notions of precision, Sutherland loosens our attachment to le mot juste that Pound argued for in The ABCs of Writing, and that he intended in 1933 when he affirmed “the way any precise use of words is bound in the long run to be useful to the state and the world at large” (Pound). “A certain practiced overvaluation of precision,” Sutherland writes, “(e.g. the U.S. budget for laser-targeted air-to-ground missiles) causes me to feel this, as I rise in the library elevator-shaft in search of one specific book among millions.” If the values that attend precision are inseparable from the values of technological reproduction and a whole logic that has penetrated every aspect of our militarized and financialized daily lives, it may well be a socio-aesthetic imperative to fail in one’s effort to be precise. “In vagueness I feel the specific pressure of history,” Sutherland writes (i.e., “the totality of present and past relations,” “the vagaries of capital wandering across the globe,” “the great macroeconomic vagueness of its total effects and ineffects”). My feeling is that it’s the specificity of this vagueness, this pressure and this history, that precedes and survives our participation, a history whose deadly betrayals guarantee ongoing immiseration and suffering, a history that demands of me, of us a definitive break in the economic logic of my own survival in order to stop that immiseration and that suffering. And yet, an achieved vagueness would also belie the very precision it’s meant to defy if only because it is precisely [sic] the specificity of history that breeds all these vague feelings about history—each contrary pushing through its opposite—making it impossible to fail precision, which persists the way something as false as the sun persists in the dark of night. One must fail the values of efficiency, clarity, accuracy—in short, one must fail the illusion of unfailing value when the guise of precision is the mask of crisis. To refuse the clarity of technological reproduction, to negate the efficiency of one’s works, to defy the accuracy of the shot, not in the name of uselessness, but in order to propose the question of use as if for the first time. “What’s the use?,” asks Gertrude Stein again and again in Tender Buttons, not as an affirmation of the artwork’s uselessness, but as part of a tactical effort to move beyond the uselessness of substitution and exchange. “This defiance is crucial and true, it is impossible,” writes Sutherland, “and as such expressible only without precision. It is also a form of unhappiness.” But why impossible? Because of its truth? Because a revolutionized situation can only be anywhere out of this world, or N’importe ou hors du monde, as Baudelaire will subtitle one of his prose poems after his own adopted English title, “Anywhere Out of This World”? Impossibility thus becomes the aim, because impossibility is the form defiance takes. For at the same time, it’s impossible to fail value whose very constitution is the imminence of failure. Impossible, then, to fail precision. Even the desire for rigor, if not rigor itself, can only manifest an impossible vagueness if it is to remain faithful to itself. I tarry with these thoughts and feelings because of the tacit urgency in them that one use “the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity” (Adorno)—rather than responding to that fallacy only by insisting on the irreversible dominance of the object —a breakthrough that might at least betray the pathos of its failure to fail in an affective register of unhappiness and love. Stadler, too, calls attention to a range of affects inseparable from the scene of writerly production, a kind of queer optimism born equally from the passion of failure and the pleasure of love. As for his cover of LeCarré, Stadler writes, “My method of composition was to re-read the LeCarré book (which I have loved since I first read it on a beach fifteen years ago) line-by-line and to sketch its architecture. I plotted each scene—the movements of its principal and marginal characters, the exact sequence by which they enter and leave, what they exchange or do, and the interactions they have—on an enormous piece of paper, the result looking much like an orchestral score for a symphony. I then substituted my own setting and characters (Guanajuato, Mexico, where I was living at the time) and ‘played’ the score note-by-note, line-by-line, by writing this book).” Stadler’s references to music resonate through his “Author’s Note”—from rock music and pop covers to the symphonic score itself as a synecdoche for music’s material base in graphic inscription—and while these references will help me to create a thin bridge back to Adorno, they also bring to mind what Judith Goldman has recently referred to as “medium envy,” which she characterizes as an affective form of cross-medium mimicry, imitation and remediation. Stadler envies rock music’s easy formalism, something Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha, A Novel by Matthew Stadler aims to imitate, despite the impossibility of achieving success given the strict separation of aesthetic genres and a culture industry bent on policing them, a separation no gesture toward failure can correct, nor will envy overcome, as the Muses themselves appear to be implicated in the division of labor that our own labors haplessly reproduce, together with the reproduction of our selves. Among other things, Stadler’s novel is a stunning performance of the writer’s constrained relation to his medium, one that exposes its own infidelity insofar as it has an entirely other medium in mind for its model. How else is one to remain faithful? When I heard Stadler recently read and discuss his work—a presentation that also addressed the inspiring strategies of Publication Studio for independent publishing—he began by projecting a YouTube video of The Byrds performing “Eight Miles High” (1965) followed by a live cover of the same song by Hüsker Du (1981), whose grinding guitars, reverb and distortion suppress the barely perceptible strain of the Byrds’ sublime melody, the fragility of which becomes all the more profound as its smothered sweetness yields an inversely proportionate power to demystify the artifice of the band’s aggression, an aggression that would seem to want to put that melody out of its innocent misery. Stadler asked us to keep this cover in mind as he embarked on a reading of the first several pages of his book, Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha, A Novel by Matthew Stadler after having read the first several pages of the LeCarré original, performing a pathos of influence by highlighting his admiration of Hüsker Du’s ability to transcend its source song while still remaining faithful to the vicissitudes of its affect. “I think literature has mostly gotten the pop cover wrong,” he writes, “willfully overlooking its essential formalism in favor of the easier pleasures of affinity or mimicry.” While those easier pleasures are inseparable from Stadler’s effort, his successful commitment to that formalism makes it difficult for any unsuspecting reader to hear the novel’s longing for a performative mode categorically alien to its genre and medium as the pop music analogy hovers on the threshold of apprehension, the source melody virtually inaudible given its relative obscurity outside a gaggle of LeCarré aficionados unaware of Stadler’s book. This may be but another effect of a culture industry bent on maintaining discrete generic constituencies whose logic is never betrayed even by works located in the margins of that industry, the unsellable and the avant-garde alike. To perceive the musical analogy, and with it the envy that inspires Stadler’s writerly labor and pleasure, one would not only have to be familiar with A Murder of Quality, but one would also have to make a conceptual leap across an always treacherous abyss, a fault dividing mediums, genres and forms, a chasm in economic logic that Stadler’s cover of LeCarré—as well as Publication Studio itself—really fucks with, while inevitably failing to make it all the way across. Acutely sensitive to his own travail, Stadler thematizes this failure in his “Author’s Note” not only as the imminent limit of his singular effort, but more profoundly as the vital resource for making history, whose own forms of repetition and mimicry it may well be the role of the artist to preempt and short-circuit. No doubt, the aesthetics of failure has a long genealogy perhaps synonymous with modernism itself and is tantamount to a persistent performance of modernity’s ongoing failure to fulfill the promise of the present by overturning the terms of its past. Here, I’m reminded of Charles Baudelaire’s calculated confession of having failed to adequately emulate his professed model in the Petits poèmes en prose, that model being none other than Louis Aloysius Bertrand’s bizarre little book of prose ballads, Gaspard de la Nuit, fantaisies á la mannière de Rembrant et de Callot, a book near and dear to me, in which Bertrand, by his own confession, claims to have “tried to create a new genre of prose,” only to have failed implicitly in his own estimation—he says he tried—if only because his book remained unpublished when he died tubercular and penurious at age 34, despite the manuscript having been bought by Victor Hugo’s own publisher seven years before his death. As Bertrand himself prophecies in the opening prose poem of Gaspard de la nuit, his manuscript would be left for the worms and would have to await exhumation by some future bibliophile who, while rescuing the work from the mold and the rot, would remain unable “to rescue mine from oblivion.” Baudelaire, too, contended with the specter of oblivion, the void into which his poèmes en prose would no doubt be destined were they to fall outside circuits of exchange. In the famous letter to his prospective editor Arsène Houssaye at La Presse, the largest newspaper of the day, Baudelaire writes with corrosive irony, “I remain quite far from my mysterious and brilliant model [. . .] an accident of which anyone other than I would probably be proud, but which can only deeply humiliate a mind that considers it the poet’s greatest honor to execute exactly what he planned to do.” But Baudelaire’s professed failure to realize his model is just a cover for his own failure to fail, for he accomplished precisely what he set out to do and insinuated the poème en prose like an antidote into the very organ of prosaic circulation most infected with the values he loathed—the profit driven daily newspaper—while managing still to disabuse himself and his readers of whatever delusion of mastery remained smoldering in the very notion of “authorship,” a mystification like those of liberty, equality and fraternity whose social order Baudelaire would equate with prostitution. As for Bertrand, his own “new genre” was itself an effect of multiple medium envies as he drew his own formal models from a wide range of disciplines: the paintings and drawings by Rembrandt and Callot, the verse ballads of Walter Scott, which appeared in French translation in the early nineteenth century neatly procaicized into short prose strophes, as well musical fantaisies, a genre of classical composition inspired by the spirit of improvisation. In yet a different way, Baudelaire’s performance of failure underscores the pathos of his own longing to transcend profit-driven print culture. Like a good dialectician sensitive to the contradictions within which his work is caught, Baudelaire’s poèmes en prose resist a world dominated by “the article”—the world of print journalism and department store—while masquerading as articles in order to circulate. In “Lost Halo,” one of several prose poems that dramatizes its own generic innovation, Baudelaire writes from the perspective of a fallen angel—a personification of lyric poetry—who, having lost his halo in the chaos of Second Empire Paris, can now “walk about incognito, commit foul acts, and indulge in debauchery like ordinary mortals.” The poem allegorizes a dialectical masquerade that betrays and preserves poetry’s social mobility, allowing poet and poem alike to do strange commerce with the “foul acts” and “debauchery” characteristic of common economic behavior under modern capitalism—selling—which not even the most militant of poets can defy in good faith. “So here I am, just like you, as you can see,” the angel asserts, and “just like you”—dear reader—I can now pimp and whore with the bad faith of good conscience. But while Baudelaire’s new form bears the impress of exchange-value, it also makes the otherwise opaque logic of that value scrutable, legible, palpable. Bertrand’s own longing to transcend his medium—resulting in aesthetic commitments that render his work unsellable—may have inspired envy in Baudelaire, whose radical mimesis of the article surrenders itself to circulation whereby the newness of the poème en prose converges with the newness advertised by the commodity form itself, a form whose value—profit driven uselessness—quietly vanquishes the seeming purity of Bertrand’s uncompromising example. Quelles admirables commodités! Baudelaire declares in his sales pitch to Houssaye, in an effort to sell his articles by appealing to their convenience [commodité] for readers. The form that results from Baudelaire’s medium envy illustrates what Adorno calls the “surrender to history” characteristic of so-called authentic artworks: “Authentic works are those that surrender themselves to the historical substance of their age without reservation and without the presumption of being superior to it. They are the self-conscious historiography of their epoch” (Aesthetic Theory). With a different emphasis on history, Stadler still echoes something in Adorno: “History’s script is fixed,” Stadler writes, “so that each generation is asked to play the same dramas; but we’re such poor actors that we inevitably screw it up. From the enormous gap that separates our intentions from our actual performance springs the peculiar character and style of our time, our era—that is to say our history.” To surrender to history, to risk a future as something other than a bad extension of the present, would be to submit to that gap—the fault or chasm—the way the figure of the angel submits to the urban boulevard with its “shifting chaos where death comes galloping from all sides,” or the way the figure of the artist submits in another of Baudelaire’s prose poems, “The Artist’s Confiteor,” when declaring the permeability of his subjectivity: “All these things think through me, or I think through them (for in the vastness of reverie the self loses itself!),” as if to say, “Things think, therefore I am not.” And yet, while Baudelaire courts the penetration of his form by the world of commodities, he performs his surrender to history while preempting total defeat in a delicate dialectic of control and submission. Similarly, Schoenberg’s music is keenly sensitive to the audibility of commodity form as reification bears on his musical material creating impossible sound figures within the space of composition. I like to think that all these musical analogies affirm the appropriateness of my having taken Adorno’s essay on Schoenberg as my source text, an essay I have loved deeply ever since first reading it by the pool on a hot summer day many years ago. Adorno loves Schoenberg’s discovery, despite his critique of its reification in a twelve tone system that would outlive its impulse, because his method frees the twelve tones of the chromatic scale from a key signature that otherwise binds them to structures of expressive tonality only to rebind or bundle them according to intervals whose newly democratized relations could just as easily connote a bureaucratization of functions organized according to extra-personal or non-expressive orders. Schoenberg’s method thus becomes prescient, as it anticipates both a dismantled gold standard and the bundling of mortgage debt in the form of securities and other financial instruments whereby the self becomes socialized paradoxically while being indissolubly linked to privatized processes of accumulation. Just as Baudelaire’s poème en prose responds to the defrocking of lyric by going undercover as commodity, Schoenberg’s method, in surrendering to history, insinuates itself into a dominant logic of social organization as a way of making that logic audible. As for Stadler’s own cover, it too aims to trouble staid categories of expressivity and voice in ways that exceed Schoenberg’s method because of its affirmation of inevitable failure. “Everything we do or write is composed from what we inherit,” Stadler writes, “But we always hear it wrong. What matters or moves me in most covers arises from the inevitable failure of the cover artist to ‘get it right,’” thereby affirming rather than denying or mastering the movement of history. “‘Conceptual Writing’ by Rethood Onroda” gets it right by inevitably failing to get it right. Given the simple substitution of “Conceptual Writing” for Adorno’s “Schoenberg”—an appellation that contains multiplicities—and its polite refusal to name proper names, my essay renders as univocal and homogeneous a polyvocal and heterogeneous literary trend. In settling for the universal over the particular, totality over context, genre over species, “‘Conceptual Writing’ by Rethood Onroda” swoons with envy for its model and its model’s model, but can only hear it wrong, collapsing its precision and its imprecision, its rigor and its vagueness, rendering them interchangeable, while exposing its own belatedness, and this is something I’m still longing to address as I take a moment’s comfort in Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha and its “Author’s Note” where I read how “our capacity for human failure is a vital resource, a place to which we must willingly go in order to continue working” without suffering the nostalgia for success.

Rob Halpern
Ypsilanti, March 2012

1 “‘Conceptual Writing’ by Rethood Onroda” is a cover version of Theodor Adorno’s “Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951),” which appears in English translation in Prisms. My essay is filtered through that essay, from which it takes its cues, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, for at least the first fifty sentences or so, before failing its own athleticism and exhausting its energies in a vagueness at once impossible and precise. See my “Author’s Note” for further comments. A debt of gratitude is owed to Ben Friedlander for the critical models he offers in Simulcast: Four Experiments in Criticism (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), and also to David Hadbawnik and John Hyland for first publishing this essay in Kadar Koli 7 (Summer 2012). 

2 For my translations of Perec’s early essays, see “For a Realist Literature,” Chicago Review 54:2/3 (Fall 2007); “Commitment or the Crisis of Language,” Review of Contemporary Fiction, 29.1 (Dalkey Archive, 2009); and “Wozzeck, or the Method of Apocalypse,” Paul Revere’s Horse (Issue 5, Summer 2011).