Performative Criticism and Against Conceptual Poetry

Ron Silliman

Counterpath Press


Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

I recently participated in a panel discussion on the topic of performative criticism at REVERSE, the Copenhagen International Poetry Festival held at their LiteraturHaus. My co-panelists were Danish-Norwegian critic Susanne Christensen, Swedish critic and poet Magnus William-Olsson, and Danish writer Kamilla Löftström. The conversation was reasonably lively, focusing on performative criticism as a critical phenomenon, most often seen in the wild: critics deploying what could be called, for lack of a better handle, themself as part of their critical apparatus. The choice of the grammatically incorrect singular is of course intentional, for the self that is critically performed is a self whose unity comes forth in the purported disjunct (or performed disjunctification) between the person and the critic (or the author as I and the authorial I). So far, so postmodern-y good. There’s a certain metafictional-metaphysical comfort in publicly playing the torsion between oneself and one’s self.1 The notes of contention were duly supplied by me, who disapproves of the meta, no matter how performatively messy.

Whereas the others had spent some time dissecting, theorizing, and engaging the notion (n.b., Magnus William-Olsson has likened the critical symposium as a genre to the meal, whose community “has its basis not in conversation, but in listening’s mutuality”2), I was primarily there as an exhibit. I acquit myself well enough in this regard, serving as that kind of ambivalent proof that means one thing in the hands of the prosecutor, another for the defense. But as the benefit of travel is to bring back boxes of unfamiliar chocolate (impolitely appreciated) and snaps of unseen scenery (politely unappreciated), this serves that (again, the singularity is meant). Performative criticism as such: not the performance of the critic, though there is that, but the performance as criticism. For purposes of today, we can leave aside the body in this regard, and just consider a textual exhibit.

Against Conceptual Poetry is a book-length poem, a lineation of a 2011 conversation between WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, then under house arrest, and Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, and other powerful money and media personalities. According to the Note that precedes the poem, the conversation was to discuss ideas for Schmidt’s then forthcoming, The New Digital World, later published as The New Digital Age, “the project was still being characterized with a spatial rather than temporal metaphor.” (viii) Silliman continues this move via his overtly poetic lineation of the conversation, for what poetry has as its donné, like listening and conversation, is the temporality of a good meal, that is to say, one must have one’s courses. As courses are also things that are taught.

ASSANGE: and I went to
thirty different schools, so I’ve seen
plenty of Lord of the Flies

ASSANGE: …But no, I think that
the instincts human beings have are
actually much better than the societies
that we have. (70)

It occurs to me here that the distinction between the spatial and the temporal with regard to the digital, or, for that matter, the digital as informational, is as an outmoded a segregation as Edward Snowden’s sense of self and State. In other words, time = space, space = time given that we encounter and engage (and what’s the difference) our metadata-driven environs only within a bandwidth that exists in a conflation of time/space and is experienced as such. So that the twitterfeed Time @it_happened (“Updates on the present”), which tweets times (“It’s 11:08.” “It’s 3:23.”) is a perfect example of, not the contingency of time and space, or their relativity, but their absolute conflation. What does this have to do with Snowden and the Government? In a minute.

Silliman’s book is moreover framed by annotations, the temporal equivalent of the footnote’s spatial aside. A prefatory Note is afterworded by a Notes explicating the footnotes throughout, everything from Footnote 5’s straightforward “Internet service providers” clarification of the line “do you decide which ISPs5“… to the more straightforwardly polemical Footnote 39 “Arguable. WikiLeaks had been active in exposing political assassinations and other extra-judicial killing in Kenya…” addendum to the lines, “…Something I am certain about / is that we changed the outcome / of the Kenyan election in 2007.39” These notes also serve as overt textual contextualizations, to further clarify the political intent of the poem itself, as if it needed further clarification. Or as if, which is rather more telling, the polemics within the poem might be misinterpreted, or as if truth-telling is still the purview of poetry, and that truth will be told, if only sotto voce.

Long stanzas that make positivist political claims are often punctuated by short affective stanzas, a call and response that can turn gravitas gamine relatively quickly, such that Assange’s chronicle of WikiLeak’s transition from elite whistleblowing entity “to a worldwide household name with 84% / name recognition worldwide” is met with:

COHEN: Wow. (134)

Wow could be seen as punctum, but it’s the punctum of perceived affect, which cannot be punctum because the punch is too-signaled. Similarly, there is the circular logic presented in this choral round:

SHIELDS: But it’s also not verifying facts.

SCHMIDT: But that’s the core question.

ASSANGE: It’s not about verifying facts.

MALCOMSON: Well that’s that


COHEN: That’s another argument.


ASSANGE: We have published…

MALCOMSON: It’s about verifying documents
not about verifying truth… (165)

But of course it is about verifying truth, though it’s a more poetic than political truth. Or equally political and poetic. For the poetic truth being that postmodernism, and Language poetry, as the quintessentially postmodern poetry, needed (needs?) the polemic, and the structure of the polemic, in order to preserve a claim to poetic legitimacy.3 Because legitimacy outside poetry would save poetry from being the fundamentally illegitimate thing it was since the postmodern discovery that language itself was illegitimate. Ergo, the proper politic or the political affect. Effect, if you squint just so.

Which reminds me of Susanne Christensen’s tag line on her blog: “All night we’ve been talking to liars / And it´s all right, just not in the style of tigers.” Because Silliman never questions that the individual identity of the speaker determines the length of the stanza, or the line: there’s no enjambment between named entities, no matter how otherwise comaraderly they are or how their sentiments or agendas align. Thus, no stanza extends beyond its orating voice, and the players are kept within their ideological frames as individual agents with agencies that need to be explicated by the Poet as the point of greatest singularity—to wit, the interlineation provided most directly by poetic lineation. In short, it’s no collective autobiography except ideologically. Edward Snowden was asked why he ratted out the NSA, and he said something heartfelt about his family (military) and his disappointment (Obama). The interesting ideological obscenity here being that it was expected that he would have (and indeed he did have) an individual beef with the State, that it was not enough that the State was spying, that there had to be a personal reason why—an affective response.

In 2013, Cal Bedient wrote an essay titled “Against Conceptualism: Defending the Poetry of Affect” for the Boston Review, arguing that conceptualism’s unoriginal sin was its faithlessness to strong emotion, which Bedient ties to the possibility of militancy. Leaving aside the pre-Conceptual (as in Art) error in Bedient’s analysis, that affect adheres in the objet and not in the d’art, and the pre-Copernican (as in Cosmology) mistake that it is the Author who turns the tides, and that utopianism is the province of poets. Or avant gardism, which is another historical/performative fallacy: realism is the steak the a-g historically trades in, utopianism is just sizzle—and a particularly American sizzle at that. For it is in this affective mode that Silliman’s book performs a Language-poem critique of American conceptualism as Against Conceptual Poetry performs Language poetry’s belief in poetry’s redemptive properties—in its preserve. A preserve, of course, is a jam, as well as a place where the wild are kept cordoned off as if they might be yet in the wild. Against Conceptual Poetry is not a conceptual poem. A conceptual poem does not make its own arguments. A conceptual poem does not thumb the scale on its political or poetical reception. A good conceptual poem is too dumb to persuade anyone of anything. But Against Conceptual Poetry is not supposed to be a conceptual poem. It’s a performance of poetry, as if poetry ought should have a politic, when all it has, at this ideological moment, is its performance. Or, as the poet once said: “Oh, I want to dance with somebody / I want to feel the heat with somebody / Yeah, I want to dance with somebody / With somebody who loves me.”


1 This is to be distinguished from the notion of “displaying” the torsion, as if by showing there is a suggestion that such a thing could be hidden, or as if by revealing there is an implication that this play is not otherwise obvious.

2 Which leads one to wonder whether listening is ever mutual, or could ever participate in real mutuality. It seems to me either gift or grab, i.e., either one listens without expectation of return, as an act of pure generosity (the ideal reading, e.g.), or one is tendering one’s ears. This is the difference between the (dialogic) monologue of Twitter, which leans towards gift, and the three-way oration of Facebook, which leans towards grab. There is also a distinction between these listening/gifts and listening/grabs and the analogic version noted by Fran Liebowitz, who said that the opposite of listening is waiting.

3 Language poetry was a poetry of political argument, not the least of which was the argument for the meta: as much as Language poets gave the nod to the hapless deconstructionist, ever grasping at ever moving mots (in your eye), there remained (for most) a dancer’s steel lock on the spot. The spot being the idée fixe on display, such as the superiority of Marxism, for ongoing example, versus the de of deconstruction. This articulation of the meta (see framing devices, or de vices, ante) ever so belies any full fidelity to the reader as meaning-maker. Though perhaps that’s unfair: the move in Language poetry was not that the reader was necessarily co-equal to the poet, but was at least an active bottom.

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