First off I want to emphasise the tentative nature of the post below (and come to think of it, of everything I put up here in fact). Just me audibly struggling with the material really.
Ever since Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman’s cute little, yet expansive (dubbed as such by Karla Kelsey), manifesto style book Notes on Conceptualisms came out last year people have been making much, or trying to make something of the statement made therein that Conceptualism is allegorical. How so? people asked. What does allegorical mean in relation to Conceptual Writing? Recently Vanessa Place, invited by Steve McCaffery, gave a talk, perhaps to clarify some of the confusion. And her language is indeed very lucid, as well as being suggestive, which for me sometimes creates a beautiful and/yet uncanny or haunting quality. A few days ago I received this lecture in the mail in the form of a handsome chapbook titled The Allegory and the Archive (published by derek beaulieu’s No Press). Like Notes on Conceptualisms this pamflet is feather light, beautifully bound with red string, but not a word is wasted and although hard work, I also found it a pleasure to read.
Although there is much more to say about the booklet in general I want to focus on how Vanessa Place’s use of allegory is a pointing to, but not a talking about: a decision, a bearing witness, but not a representation. In other words, how Conceptual Writing as allegorical writing rejects representation of in favour of presentation for or alongside the Real.
Place starts off by briefly sketching a history of various understandings of allegory: that of extended metaphor, a text with a literal and symbolic meaning. She then names Walter Benjamin as a turning point in the modern understanding of allegory; equating this through Baudelaire, with the inner life. Benjamin writes about Baudelaire that he, “always concentrates on the inner life, as Dante focused on dogma.” Michael Jennings in an anthology about Benjamin writes that for Baudelaire allegory was his “weapon of preference [against the] ‘harmonious façade of the world’ that surrounded him. This ability to unmask the given order, with its illusion of totality and organic wholeness, is the progressive tendency of allegory.” (in ‘On the Banks of a New Lethe’, in Benjamin Now: Critical Encounters with the Arcades Project, p. 101)
So in place of Dante where the internal/external divide concerns the whole text; the modern allegory is internalized. The internal/external dichotomy is located between the ostensible inner world of a despairing psyche and the supposed outer world. Conceptualism, however, does not accept an internal/external divide between psyche and world. “Rather, there is a recognition of the truth of the soup in which the individuated we and you stew.” Instead of the transcendence of the aforementioned divide, there is only immanence, only the soup of which, although individuated, we are still a part.
I would like to make a distinction between representational allegory and allegory of the Real. The former would be any story that allegorizes abstract universals (in the way that one individual represents the abstract universal Every(wo?)man in the famous medieval (15th c.) tale Everyman), or moral laws, common sense, and good/evil; the delicate balance (for example, the Narnia tales). Conceptualism on the other hand, can be seen as allegorizing specific effects of the Real. Not free-floating abstract ideas or notions right or wrong; but rather effects of language or the subject that are present in a text as lack or excess. These are, for example, effects of uncontainability, unreadability, and material fabrication that express themselves by forcing themselves through the Conceptual text (Place mentions Kenneth Goldsmith’s unreadable Day (for one it consists of 40% stock quotes), or Craig Dworkin’s Parse whose very constitutive procedure simultaneously eats away at the text from within).
Thus, when Place writes that Conceptualism “is concerned with the way that the surface excess of text mirrors the excess of the remainder”, I take this to mean that 1. there is an excess of the immaterial (the irrelevant and the unreadable) which pushes through a given text and 2. that Conceptualism bears witness to this remainder (points to it by way of allegory). “All that poetry is is witness… on a paradigmatic basis.” And the one who witnesses Place calls the “sobject”, to indicate the rejection of the old internal/external divide in favour of immanence. The sobject stands in immanent connection to the outside; is “the one who witnesses some thing it is witnessed by.”
Although I am still not clear on the added value of the coinage “sobject”. If the reason is to get away from a closed-circuit correlation between subject-object, then why not simply think of the subject as an object (albeit it a complex one, with self-awareness) in relation to other objects (and to the “thing it is witnessed by”). Part of what I think Place (and Fitterman (co-author of Notes on Conceptualisms)) are getting at with the concept of “sobject” is an inclusion of the (lyrical-)subject in the event of the poem’s emergence from the Real; or conversely, the rejection of the lyrical subject as discretely/autonomously present somewhere outside of the poem (which is part of the Real); without however, denying a role for the subject (of which there will always be a trace: Think of the interference of Kenneth Goldsmith’s subject position in his works: the typo’s in Day, the impossibility of an objective notation in Fidget; the incorporation of inebriation in Soliloquy. And likewise, in Vanessa Place’s own impure Conceptualism, where the language with effects of baroque/excess is her own).
For all of these reasons I think that philosophies of immanence provide good frameworks for understanding the significance of Conceptualism. Conceptualist writers, “witnesses on a paradigmatic basis” might be seen as clinicians of society (Deleuze), or subjects to an event of truth that emerges through poems, or bodies of work (Badiou). But one philosophy I think fits particularly well with the way Place presents allegory is the non-philosophy of Francois Laruelle. The “non-” is meant not as a negation of philosophy but as a suspension of some of its axioms. One claim Laruelle makes is that all philosophy creates a distance from the Real by talking about it. Even Deleuze’s plane of immanence, according to Laruelle, is already a distancing from the immanence in which it (the plane) must necessarily be contained. Likewise Badiou’s multiplicity too, is already posited. Instead Laruelle proposes a One that underlies everything and of which everything is an expression. Everything including all thought, all philosophy. This One is immediately reminiscent of Neo-Platonism, but Laruelle’s is not of course, a unified One that is transcendent to its expressions; it is what Laruelle calls radical immanence, about which nothing can be said. Therefore instead of making claims directly about the Real, Laruelle’s non-philosophy consists of learning indirectly, by treating works of philosophy themselves as effects of the Real. In the same way that Conceptualism undercuts the lyrical subject by way of the concept, Ray Brassier speaks of an alien subject of Non-philosophy, someone who only points toward, writes alongside, instead of about the Real.
As Nick Srnicek writes in an essay about Laruelle, “The question is not ‘what is the One and how does it operate?’, but rather ‘with philosophy being an object determined by the One, what can be done with it?”. Here echoes sound through of Christian Böks ‘pataphysics (the science of the possible), and more literally of Craig Dworkin’s question: “So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better… but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.”
Non-philosophy as allegorical philosophy? Conceptual poetry as non-conceptual poetry?