This, That and the Other Unfinished Thought

Because I have so many disparate ideas about conceptual theory, I decided to posit them all and then possibly follow up on the more interesting ones later.

What’s Yours is Mine
Appropriation of others’ words is ethically fine (more on its artistic merits in a bit) as long as it is acknowledged or is incorporated in some way that references the source or nods its head at an external source. Albert Goldbarth constantly incorporates external text in his poetry, and while he often attributes the source, he sometimes doesn’t. Instead, he just uses quotes, and in these instances I think he actually forgot what his source was. I can’t make a broad statement, however, about appropriation as a creative or artistic strategy. Like the phenomena of sampling in popular music, I can, in theory, think it a bit lazy, but in practice, find some fabulous associative qualities that rely on an experiential element. Whether or not appropriation of text has any artistic merit differs from piece to piece and writer to writer. But if Ken Goldsmith is claiming it as a “new” strategy (one of many that feed the poetic machine), I believe that Raphael Rubinstein demonstrates that appropriative writing has been around (and around).

Fart, Lark, and Laughter
One school of appropriative writing that I feel like I can condemn freely is Flarf. I don’t like Flarf. I don’t like Flarf and I’ll tell you why I don’t like Flarf. Flarf is snooty. That’s right, I said it. Flarf is patronizing and mocking. It doesn’t respect its subject matter. And I’m not talking about the individual subjects of the poems. I’m talking about the populace that is represented by their google searches. I’m talking about taking from the commons and using the material as comic fodder for satire, sarcasm and snark. The title of “The Swiss Just Do Whatever” by Sharon Mesmer already indicates an insolence toward the earnest gesture of making sense out of the world, an irreverence that would work if directed toward authority. Instead, it’s directed toward the cumulative efforts of the populace. And I don’t like Flarf because it claimed a poet I admired greatly while in my 20s: Katie Degentesh. Her Flarf is disappointing compared to her sincerity.

“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”
One of the more interesting aspects of Goldsmith’s article about Flarf and Conceptual writing is the comments section. One reader, who went by the name Arif Kahn brought up a similar point that J. Michael Martinez did when encountering Goldsmith’s claim that “identity is up for grabs.” Kahn unfortunately couches his argument in antisemitism and occludes his valid point: the claim that identity is something to be adopted and discarded is a privileged one. Only those whose identities are not marginalized, subsumed, misrepresented, constructed, or assigned(!) have the luxury of playing dress-up with identity. The question to explore is “why?” Do non-privileged identities need to be protected? Foregrounded? Or is it because marginalized populations are prohibited to ever leave their hierarchically-constructed identities behind? Michael, if you are reading this, please comment.

The Goal of Conceptual Writing is to Fail
Dannielle Tegeder’s Falling Apart NYC, which is part of Goldsmith’s Publishing the Unpublishable series, is riveting. I’ve been conditioned by my previous experiences of Conceptual Writing to expect the text to snoozers, to be secondary to the process, to the concept. Conditioned to feel no need to read the text, either in its entirety or at all. But Falling Apart NYC is riveting. I read the whole thing greedily. And it has obvious “conceptualist” signposts: appropriated writing, repetition of entire blocks of text. So does that mean that the work failed as conceptual writing? I have to say that it definitely succeeded as regionalist writing, and I wonder if the reason I found it so compelling is because I lived in NYC and my relationship to the text is grounded in experience. So then, that calls the role of the reader into question. If the reader is more interested in the text than in the poetic machine, does that cancel out the writer’s conceptual intentions? Does the reader get to decide if writing is conceptual or not? Doesn’t that contradict the implications of conceptual, which would indicate the writer as primary?

And what happens when the concept belongs to one person and the writing belongs to another? Is it still Conceptual Writing? If the conceptual is privileged, then isn’t the writing performed by someone else no longer pertinent? So when a writer uses Tristan Tzara’s cut-up strategies, is she no longer engaging in Conceptual Writing because she did not engender the concept?

And what if the concept belongs to a person, and the words belong to that same person, but the writing belongs to a machine, like Racter? Does Racter need to run its program more than once? Does it ever need to run its program?

My Refrigerator, My Page
Magnetic Poetry is a poetic machine. Does that make it conceptual. Is magnetic poetry conceptual but the anthologies of magnetic poetry not? Does the fact that it is a commercial product accessible to billions of people make it not conceptual?



  1. loveandpopsicles said

    So, first of all, much agreement on the awesomeness of the Tegeder piece.

    But now it is time for battle!

    I like flarf. I don’t like the in-group snideness of the flarfists, but I think flarf can be playful. Maybe I’m naive and flarf is truly sinister. Maybe I just like weird things. I have actually done some flarf experiments and my intention (not that my intention matters) was more exploratory than mocking. I am fascinated by what and how people say things on the internet. But, again, perhaps I’m just nicer than the real flarfists.

    Forgive me; I just woke up and I am very tired.

    Oh, btw, my husband does sampling–and if done with any care it isn’t easy. I will not defend most mainstream artists, though–their sampling is often lazy. Instead of cutting something up into tiny bits and putting some of them back together in interesting ways, a lot of popular artists cut it into quarters and the entire chorus of the pop artist’s song is comprised of someone else’s chorus.

    (PS I’ll be bringing the Gurlesque anthology to class. Yay!)

  2. Hey check out Creative Commons licensing!

  3. outside dog said

    why can’t those flarf assholes see that what the world really needs is more bourgeios earnestness?

  4. Ry said

    We all appropriate words from everyone else. I think you meant their combinations. “My” view is that language, being mostly air, isn’t and shouldn’t be owned.

    In a democracy the authority is allegedly the populace. What is wrong with being anti-populist? (I won’t say Flarf is elitist at all)

    I agree with you about the issues of identity. The same goes for the trend against poetic “voice.” There are exploited people all over the world who deserve to have their “voice” heard regardless if “voice” is unfashionable to the bourgeois-boheme that imagine themselves as post-avant, or neo-avant or whatever. I think the terms “identity” and “voice” mean different things to different economic strata. To these bourgeois-bohemians and pseudo-avant-gardists who live off of arts grants identity is capital that they can expend at their leisure, but to oppressed people in the holes of the world identity is a source of power that is running scarce.

    But I like flarf. It is funny. And I don’t think flarfists are stealing words from oppressed people so much as the hyper-consumerist people eating up the world.


    i don’t think conceptual writing/art is about intentionalism vs reader-response or anything like that at all. i don’t think that is ever an issue.

    when you ask if the reader is more “interested in the text” than the “poetic machine” i think you have a different definition of “text” than many conceptual artists/writers.

    when a guy like lawrence weiner puts some sand on the road and calls it a “work” – it doesn’t “fail” if i happen to like the sand and the road better than some obscure commentary about time and oblivion that may underly it. I SINCERELY DOUBT YOUR LIKING TEGEDER’S WRITING BECAUSE OF YOUR EXPERIENCE. It might seem like that was the reason to you but you have no grounds to claim it was your “experience” just as you can’t have textual experience without concepts in the first place. You have concepts of or about the experience, you have concepts with which you frame the experience, but you experience only the frame (obviously) and your frame consciously or not, based on ontic presuppositions. You experience nothing but the concept as a human being, human and being botht are concepts. It doesn’t have to be robotic or machinic at all.

    Though it seems to be, my view is that conceptualism isn’t “anti-aesthetic.” You try and tie your own personal realism into it to enjoy it but then you question if the work failed and not your reading of it? Your idea that intentionalism is a basis for conceptualism is way off. And the “signposts” you list are too general.

    though i know nothing of the theories or processes of conceptual writing and only know a few conventions about “conceptual art,” and i don’t accept that it is dialectically opposed to emotion, ‘raw’ experience or romanticism– i guess i’m a fool but the old conceptualists like andre and kosuth- but i’m mostly thinking of carl andre and lawrence weiner suggest organism more than “machine” in my reading– or even a mock-machine– certainly a mock-realism at times– i don’t know where the vocabulary of “machine” falls in place… from “process” i guess. but one can look at it from “generative” or cognitive persepctives other than “mechanistic” ones.

    • mcbattiste said


      So many strong points here. And so much time has passed since you posted this and for me to rethink flarf. And what you say and what Tom says below make sense. I don’t mind appropriative writing, and on some level I understand and buy into the idea that everything has been written and what we are left with is pastiche. But I think my resistance is based on a point of agreement between you and me – that voice and identity matter – and I worry that Flarf is comprised at least partly (though there is no way to know) of writing from people who have very little cultural, economic and political power and platforms. And I worry that their appropriated writing is then recast as language that works to further decrease their power and platform.

      This is a problematic stance, I realize. Who gets to decide whose writing is “untouchable” and whose is not? Or to privilege writing from a certain socio-economic or philosophical stance as “off limits” actually works to further marginalize the group that maintains that stance.

      Dunno. And I get nervous when what I’m talking about seems to be more about ethics than poetics, but I can’t reconcile myself to flarf yet, though your points do make me think.

  5. Tom B. said

    Michelle, really great points – most of them far over my philistine head (damnit Jim, I’m an MBA, not a poet). On the subject of flarf though, I tend to disagree. Some folks want to paint a late-Renoir pastoral; some folks want to make a fur-lined teacup; some folks want to make a fur-lined teacup that throws feces at those who view it; some folks want to make a fur-lined teacup that winks at those who view it as if to say bittersweetly “We all coulda been contenders, instead of wage-slaves, which when you strip it all down is what we are. Let’s face it Charlie. Remember that night you came into my bedroom and you said ‘kid, some day you’ll get paid to do what you love, and you loved ones will never die, and your pets will never die, and idiots won’t have cable TV shows, and no one will drive past you on the shoulder of the road during traffic while you’re sitting there like a sucker, and you’ll spend the rest of your days strolling through life with a serene feeling of contentment’. Remember that night? Not your most truthful moment Charlie.”

    IMHO, it’s OK to say “in this instance, in this poem, I am rejecting ‘the earnest gesture of making sense out of the world’ in favor of a possibly earnest gesture of adding my own personal signpost of controlled chaos made up of a few small stones picked up along the crooked path of life solely because I find it aesthetically pleasing. If you find it aesthetically pleasing – cool. If you prefer Mary Oliver or Louise Gluck, I’m not going to cry over it. If you prefer Jewel, there is a good chance I will cry over it, but will claim I was peeling onions.”

    Which may be a naive and simple POV and may totally misinterpret flarf, but it’s my take.

    Anyway…really loved the piece and the entire blog.

    • mcbattiste said

      Tom, I coulda been a contender!

      Love your post and I love the idea that flarf satirizes our flawed capitalistic society and its false promises instead of mocking the creators of the texts that flarf borrows from. And I’m cool with rejecting the earnest gesture. In fact, I just want to stop thinking about it and be wooed by your rhetoric, but I can’t help but feel (feel, not necessarily think, but think, too) that flarf’s rejection is not a completely benign one, that is then shuns the backs of the earnest it climbed up on to make its pronouncements. So yeah, flarf may be saying we all coulda been contenders, but who does flarf say this to, and whom does it disregard?

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