Thursday, March 31, 2011



Notes on Conceptualisms by Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2009)

The first thing to know is that conceptual writing is writing that is conceptual. The second thing to know is that conceptual writing is a whole lot of fun. It’s kinda like scrapbooking. Anyone can do it, and perhaps everyone should. But how do I get started? I hear you ask. That’s easy. There’s no better place than with this book.

Vanessa Place's and Robert Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms is a wonderfully succinct and straightforward how-to manual. It could almost have been published in the famed Dummies series as Conceptual Writing for Dummies, but it doesn’t have enough charts and illustrations. Luckily for all of us, Ugly Duckling Presse stepped up. And UDP did a wonderful job.

But there are a few apparent typos that can make things confusing for the neophyte. An apparent typo is something that looks like a typo but is not. This world is confusing enough without apparent typos, so I will take this opportunity to clean things up. I’m really only going to concentrate on one of them, the first, which fortunately or unfortunately occurs in the very first sentence: “1. Conceptual writing is allegorical writing.” “Allegorical” is clearly an apparent typo. A conceptual writing newbie might be tempted to substitute “anagogical.” I will rely on Nicola Masciandaro’s “Getting Anagogic” ( Rhizomes 21) for a discussion of anagogy:
This is it. There is no more. And it is forever. Today my remarks take aim at understanding anagogy as an essential, inevitable, and generally ignored dimension of hermeneutic experience. In open dialogue with some of its premodern concepts and instances, I mean to medievally think anagogy for the present, rather than demonstrate its past. This may be considered an attempt to study anagogy anagogically, to understand it in a manner that produces an anagogic sense of anagogy, a postmedieval foretaste of its presence. Mirroring the fourfold sense of scripture, I attempt this by speculatively splitting anagogy into literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. These I name Arrival, Constellation, Spice, and Now, respectively. … Anagogy is arrival in the literal sense of being an intersection between its etymological meaning and its position as the last and highest of hermeneutic senses, an intersection that situates finality in motion rather than stasis. Understood as the equivalent of sursumductio, ana-gogy (fr. Gk. ana ‘up’ + agein ‘lead’) signifies uplifting. But whereas uplifting is more generally thought from the earthbound perspective as elevation or raising, that is, with a reference that prioritizes the state left behind or what would otherwise remain below, anagogy inflects uplifting with an inverse transitivity that invests the terminus with motive agency. More precisely, anagogy is itself a transition within transitivity wherein subject/object and sign/thing boundaries directionally invert in a wonderful way. Such inversion typifies the Platonic principle of circulatory return. “The Good returns all things to itself ... All things are returned to it as their own goal,” says Pseudo-Dionysius, whose mystical understanding of anagogy fused with the hermeneutic concept to form its general medieval sense: the conjunction of signification and experience of final reality. That is, anagogy is the site where telic movement becomes intelligible only in the passive voice, where signs become something like upsidedown repetitions of their own event, and discourse is borne back upwards into its object, returning to by moving from its end, as Hugh of Balma says, carried upward by its own weight. Such is the weird shape of this sense, elegantly defined by de Lubac as that “which does not allow anything else after it.” So in the modern world, anagogy survives, like much else of medieval theology, in the register of horror: “I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more ... When you have read these hastily scrawled pages you may guess, though never fully realise, why it is that I must have forgetfulness or death” (Lovecraft, Dagon). Unpinning anagogy from its theological determination as participatory perception of an eternal beyond (a procedure whose imperative is retrievable from the way medieval discourse on anagogy is deeply about its metaphors), anagogy becomes intelligible as its own movement: the return of the word to itself. As Agamben explains, such return constitutes the word’s overcoming of its own internal fracture (between expression and representation, saying and showing, etc.), in other words, language’s self-fulfillment of its limitless secret prophecy (the end is nigh), the verbal undoing of the irresolution between telos and death: “Crossing over time and the scission that reveals itself in the place of language, the word must return to itself and, absolving itself of this scission, it must be at the end [essere alla fine] there where, without knowing it, it was already in the beginning; that is, in the Voice.” Literal anagogy, to echo Lacan, is littoral, a stumbling forward of the letter over its own shore, the zone where the world your word was headed towards is breathlessly sucking you into this one. So Garnier of Rochefort (†1225) speaks of anagogy as the state where the mind “by advancing fails in a marvelous way, and then advances more when it has arrived at its failure.”

Wow. Anagogy sounds pretty conceptual to me. Maybe allegory’s a real typo after all. But … I don’t think so. There’s something quite claustrophobic about anagogy. Conceptual writing wouldn’t be fun if it were claustrophobic, would it? Who wants to suffocate? Well there is sexual asphyxia. Maybe you do want to suffocate. Don’t answer that. It’s none of my business. Unless. Call me. Anyhow, allegory, as Place and Fitterman have it, lets the air in. See the little chart (there aren’t enough charts!) on page 14:

A conceptual allegory opens onto … who knows what? That’s the point, in a way, isn’t it? (I mean, why do people scrapbook? To retrieve what, exactly?) As Thom Donovan puts it:
The term allegory they [Place and Fitterman] derive from a discourse after Goethe, and radicalized in the 20th century by Walter Benjamin. A work of art is allegorical if it resists hermeneutic closure and remains open to multiple levels of interpretation. As Benjamin writes in his book The Origin of German Tragic Drama: “Allegories, are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.” For Benjamin, this fleeing/fleeting quality of cultural products (virtual ruins) relates to their place within a capitalist economy. After Benjamin, Fitterman/Place view conceptualist works as allegorical insofar as they exceed their symbolic meaning, thus elude the equation of significance with commodification.

(Thom Donovan, “Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place’s NOTES ON CONCEPTUALISMS, at BOMBLOG, 2 Oct 09)

This is important:
2g. … Conceptualism enacts Gödel’s Theorem: the degree of constancy/completemness of the “subject” and “matter” is modulated by the degree to which the linguistic object-image is limited/unlimited in nature.

This mandates the defining of the set. This invokes the one-that-is-nothing and the being-that-is-multiple posited by Alain Badiou.

If you’ve read the book, you will recall the notion that conceptual writing has a “thinkership” as well as a “readership” (heaven forfend that the two categories never overlap!). A “thinker” will take the reference to Badiou as more than just an artsy-fartsy name-drop, and will recall Badiou’s Being and Event:
For Badiou the problem which the Greek tradition of philosophy has faced and never satisfactorily dealt with is the problem that while beings themselves are plural, and thought in terms of multiplicity, being itself is thought to be singular; that is, it is thought in terms of the one. He proposes as the solution to this impasse the following declaration: that the one is not. This is why Badiou accords set theory (the axioms of which he refers to as the Ideas of the multiple) such stature, and refers to mathematics as the very place of ontology: Only set theory allows one to conceive a ‘pure doctrine of the multiple’. Set theory does not operate in terms of definite individual elements in groupings but only functions insofar as what belongs to a set is of the same relation as that set (that is, another set too). What separates sets out therefore is not an existential positive proposition, but other multiples whose properties validate its presentation; which is to say their structural relation. The structure of being thus secures the regime of the count-as-one. So if one is to think of a set — for instance, the set of people, or humanity — as counting as one the elements which belong to that set, it can then secure the multiple (the multiplicities of humans) as one consistent concept (humanity), but only in terms of what does not belong to that set. What is, in following, crucial for Badiou is that the structural form of the count-as-one, which makes multiplicities thinkable, implies that the proper name of being does not belong to an element as such (an original ‘one’), but rather the void set (written Ø), the set to which nothing (not even the void set itself) belongs. It may help to understand the concept ‘count-as-one’ if it is associated with the concept of ‘terming’: a multiple is not one, but it is referred to with ‘multiple’: one word. To count a set as one is to mention that set. How the being of terms such as ‘multiple’ does not contradict the non-being of the one can be understood by considering the multiple nature of terminology: for there to be a term without there also being a system of terminology, within which the difference between terms gives context and meaning to any one term, does not coincide with what is understood by ‘terminology’, which is precisely difference (thus multiplicity) conditioning meaning. Since the idea of conceiving of a term without meaning does not compute, the count-as-one is a structural effect or a situational operation and not an event of truth. Multiples which are ‘composed’ or ‘consistent’ are count-effects; inconsistent multiplicity is the presentation of presentation.

Badiou’s use of set theory in this manner is not just illustrative or heuristic. Badiou uses the axioms of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory to identify the relationship of being to history, Nature, the State, and God. Most significantly this use means that (as with set theory) there is a strict prohibition on self-belonging; a set cannot contain or belong to itself. Russell’s paradox famously ruled that possibility out of formal logic. (This paradox can be thought through in terms of a ‘list of lists that do not contain themselves’: if such a list does not write itself on the list the property is incomplete, as there will be one missing; if it does, it is no longer a list that does not contain itself.) So too does the axiom of foundation — or to give an alternative name the axiom of regularity — enact such a prohibition (cf. p. 190 in Being and Event). (This axiom states that all sets contain an element for which only the void [empty] set names what is common to both the set and its element.) Badiou’s philosophy draws two major implications from this prohibition. Firstly, it secures the inexistence of the ‘one’: there cannot be a grand overarching set, and thus it is fallacious to conceive of a grand cosmos, a whole Nature, or a Being of God. Badiou is therefore — against Cantor, from whom he draws heavily — staunchly atheist. However, secondly, this prohibition prompts him to introduce the event. Because, according to Badiou, the axiom of foundation ‘founds’ all sets in the void, it ties all being to the historico-social situation of the multiplicities of de-centred sets — thereby effacing the positivity of subjective action, or an entirely ‘new’ occurrence. And whilst this is acceptable ontologically, it is unacceptable, Badiou holds, philosophically. Set theory mathematics has consequently ‘pragmatically abandoned’ an area which philosophy cannot. And so, Badiou argues, there is therefore only one possibility remaining: that ontology can say nothing about the event.

The event and the subject.

Drawing from 18 November 2006 "Truth procedure in politics" lecture
The principle of the event is where Badiou diverges from the majority of late twentieth century philosophy and social thought, and in particular the likes of Foucault, Butler, Lacan and Deleuze, among others. In short, it represents that which is outside of ontology. Badiou’s problem here is, unsurprisingly, the question of how to ‘make use’ of that which cannot be discerned. But it is a problem he views as vital, because if one constructs the world only from that which can be discerned and therefore given a name, it results in either the destitution of subjectivity and the removal of the subject from ontology (the criticism continually leveled at Foucault’s discursive universe), or the Panglossian solution of Leibniz: that God is language in its supposed completion.

Badiou again turns here to mathematics and set theory — Badiou’s language of ontology — to study the possibility of an indiscernible element existing extrinsically to the situation of ontology. He employs the strategy of the mathematician Paul J. Cohen, using what are called the conditions of sets. These conditions are thought of in terms of domination, a domination being that which defines a set. (If one takes, in binary language, the set with the condition ‘items marked only with ones’, any item marked with zero negates the property of the set. The condition which has only ones is thus dominated by any condition which has zeros in it [cf. p. 367-71 in Being and Event].) Badiou reasons using these conditions that every discernible (nameable or constructible) set is dominated by the conditions which don’t possess the property that makes it discernible as a set. (The property ‘one’ is always dominated by ‘not one’.) These sets are, in line with constructible ontology, relative to one’s being-in-the-world and one’s being in language (where sets and concepts, such as the concept ‘humanity’, get their names). However, he continues, the dominations themselves are, whilst being relative concepts, not necessarily intrinsic to language and constructible thought; rather one can axiomatically define a domination — in the terms of mathematical ontology — as a set of conditions such that any condition outside the domination is dominated by at least one term inside the domination. One does not necessarily need to refer to constructible language to conceive of a ‘set of dominations’, which he refers to as the indiscernible set, or the generic set. It is therefore, he continues, possible to think beyond the strictures of the relativistic constructible universe of language, by a process Cohen calls forcing. And he concludes in following that while ontology can mark out a space for an inhabitant of the constructible situation to decide upon the indiscernible, it falls to the subject — about which the ontological situation cannot comment — to nominate this indiscernible, this generic point; and thus nominate, and give name to, the undecidable event. Badiou thereby marks out a philosophy by which to refute the apparent relativism or apoliticism in post-structuralist thought.

Badiou’s ultimate ethical maxim is therefore one of: ‘decide upon the undecidable’. It is to name the indiscernible, the generic set, and thus name the event that re-casts ontology in a new light. He identifies four domains in which a subject (who, it is important to note, becomes a subject through this process) can potentially witness an event: love, science, politics and art. By enacting fidelity to the event within these four domains one performs a ‘generic procedure’, which in its undecidability is necessarily experimental, and one potentially recasts the situation in which being takes place. Through this maintenance of fidelity, truth has the potentiality to emerge.

In line with his concept of the event, Badiou maintains, politics is not about politicians, but activism based on the present situation and the evental [sic] (his translators’ neologism) rupture. So too does love have this characteristic of becoming anew. Even in science the guesswork that marks the event is prominent. He vigorously rejects the tag of ‘decisionist’ (the idea that once something is decided it ‘becomes true’), but rather argues that the recasting of a truth comes prior to its veracity or verifiability. As he says of Galileo (p. 401):

When Galileo announced the principle of inertia, he was still separated from the truth of the new physics by all the chance encounters that are named in subjects such as Descartes or Newton. How could he, with the names he fabricated and displaced (because they were at hand — ‘movement’, ‘equal proportion’, etc.), have supposed the veracity of his principle for the situation to-come that was the establishment of modern science; that is, the supplementation of his situation with the indiscernible and unfinishable part that one has to name ‘rational physics’?

(“Alain Badiou”, in Wikipedia)

You see where all this leads, don’t you? Conceptual writing, in its open-endedness (recall that chart on p.14!), is communist! But not in any sense we’ve known yet: How could Galileo, etc etc?

Place and Fitterman try to pretend that they’re too jaded to believe this, that all is already lost (see section 6b1, which reads: “Note: the regime under which conceptual reading has flowered is the repressive market economy; this is a banal observation, nonetheless true. Note that there is no escape from this regime, …”).

But at least this “thinker” of conceptual writing is not so sure he believes them. Even though, as 7c has it, “Embodiment = failure.” Of course. And yet … “Brecht: ‘What is the robbing of a bank compared with the founding of a bank?’” (11d)

Let’s put on our black bloc masks, then, crank up the dubstep and … ‘die laughing’, as Anna Parvulescu, in her Laughter: Notes on a Passion, has it.


The volume also includes Place’s “Ventouses”, a separate text, and an appendix, which consists of a brief not-comprehensive bibliography of some conceptual writing.


John Bloomberg-Rissman is the author of No Sounds of My Own Making (2007) and Flux, Clot & Froth (2010). His most recent chapbooks are World Zero (2007), the collaboration with Ernesto Priego, Inheritance (2008), and 50 (2010). He edited the international anthology 1000 Views of ‘Girl Singing’ (2009), curated, with Eileen R Tabios, Ernesto Priego and Ivy Alvarez, The Chained Hay(na)ku Project (2010) and is responsible for the publication of 2nd NOTICE OF MODIFICATIONS TO TEXT OF PROPOSED REGULATIONS (2010). His work has appeared in numerous journals and in several anthologies. His ongoing efforts can be seen at Zeitgeist Spam.

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