Make It the Same Again: Rethinking the Past and Future of Conceptual Writing

This Friday in Wellington I am speaking on rethinking the pasts and futures of conceptual writing and art as part of a symposium on conceptual writing organized by Anna Jackson and Emma Fenton. I’m looking forward to learning from an exciting group of speakers, including Ruth Buchanan, Malcolm Doidge, and Antonia Barnett McIntosh.

The symposium will be held between 1 and 4pm this Friday 8 March 2019 in room AM103, Alan McDiarmid Building, Kelburn Campus, Victoria University of Wellington. The symposium is open to the public but if you plan to attend, please RSVP to either Anna (anna.jackson@vuw.ac.nz) or Emma (emma.fenton@vuw.ac.nz).

The abstract for my talk appears below.

Make It the Same Again: Thinking Conceptual Writing’s Pasts and Futures “out of the Western Box” 
Conceptual writing as a self-conscious movement in Anglophone literature began in the early 2000s, defining its literary novelty by asserting its belated position vis-a-vis conceptual art. And yet the application of conceptual art practices to literature was itself nothing new. Russian conceptual writers such as Dmitri Prigov and Lev Rubinstein, for instance, had done just that a quarter of a century earlier.
Conceptual writing as an active literary formation in Anglophone literature arguably ended in 2015 with the controversies over the alleged racism of works by its most prominent practitioners, Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place. And yet conceptual writing’s most vociferous critic, the anonymous online political art group The Mongrel Coalition against Gringpo, itself adopted the conceptual tactics that it simultaneously consigned to literary history.
By addressing these prehistories and afterlives of conceptual writing in English, this paper argues for a more capacious understanding of conceptual writing that would encompass a variety of literary and art practices involving the recycling and re-presentation of texts and images, or what I term “iterative poetics.” Such iterative practices are commonplace across a wide range of contemporary art and literature, from the work of contemporary New Zealand artists like Ruth Buchanan and Louise Menzies to the multilingual and multimedia work of contemporary poets like Hsia Yü and Caroline Bergvall. These iterative or copy practices constitute not just an increasingly dominant literary and artistic form but also a key means through which contemporary artists and writers contest artistic, literary, and cultural authority, including dominant accounts of the pasts and futures of conceptual writing and art.

Never too big to teach—or learn

I learn new things from my students all the time. I learn through reading their essays on topics such as One Direction fan fiction, or online trans poetry networks. But I also learn by developing new approaches to teaching. Chapter 1 of Make It the Same, for instance, would never have been written if I hadn’t, about a decade ago, decided to teach a unit on Kamau Brathwaite and Linton Kwesi Johnson for a new course on Poetry and Music. I knew a little about the work of both already, but it was the effort to gather recordings of Brathwaite’s work and of the music that had inspired it that led me to become obsessed with the importance of sound recording to Brathwaite’s practice: his use of the tape recorder in particular as a mode of composition, publication, and, as it turned out, a way of reimagining black diasporic cultural persistence and change.

Brasch spine book spine image
Book spines from the library of Charles Brasch, University of Otago Special Collections, Dunedin, New Zealand. Photograph by Elisha Gordon. Image reproduced from Elisha Gordon, “Book Spines: A Photographic Representation of the Brasch Collection,” Unpacking the Brasch Collection: Studies in Global Modernism, June 30, 2016.

I document a similar process of learning through teaching in my contribution to a new Modernism/modernity Print+ forum, organized by Rebecca Walkowitz, which asks: “What is the scale of the literary object?” In my contribution to the forum, “Too Big to Teach: Sizing Up Global Modernism,” I write about my experience teaching an honours course on global modernism in which I challenged the students to write a research blog about the personal library of the prominent New Zealand modernist writer, editor, and philanthropist Charles Brasch. As I explain, the project was prompted by the recent preoccupation with scale in modernist studies but working with the students and seeing the results of the project also taught me new things about both modernism and teaching.

When we teach, we learn. It’s a cliché, but it seems worth repeating at a time when students at colleges and universities are increasingly taught by adjunct lecturers and professors who are paid to teach, but not to research, write, or think. I am aware that I write from a privileged position of tenure and that, sadly, such symbiotic relationships between teaching, research, and writing are a rare luxury in universities around the world. But they shouldn’t be. University managers and funders, in their narrow view of the bottom line, increasingly forget that university education is meant to be about learning from those who are not just teaching knowledge but producing it and that they need to pay their teachers accordingly. Perhaps they too need to be reminded that one is never too big to learn.

Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media

make it the sameI am delighted to announce that my new book, Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media, is due out from Columbia University Press in June of this year. A brief blurb appears below. For further details, see the chapter-by-chapter contents description. For  advance orders, try the Columbia University Press page or Amazon.

Our world is full of copies. This proliferation includes not just the copying that occurs online and the cultural copying of globalization but the works of avant-garde writers challenging cultural and political authority. In Make It the Same, Jacob Edmond examines the turn toward repetition in poetry, using the explosion of copying to offer a deeply inventive account of modern and contemporary literature.

Make It the Same explores how poetry—an art form associated with the singular, inimitable utterance—is increasingly made from other texts through sampling, appropriation, translation, remediation, performance, and other forms of repetition, as opposed to privileging “innovative” or “original” works. Edmond tracks the rise of copy poetry across media from the tape recorder to the computer and through various cultures, languages, and places, reading across aesthetic, linguistic, geopolitical, and media divides. He illuminates the common form that unites a diverse range of writers from dub poets to conceptualists, samizdat wordsmiths to Twitter-trolling provocateurs, analyzing the works of such writers as Kamau Brathwaite, Dmitri Prigov, Lev Rubinstein, Caroline Bergvall, NourbeSe Philip, Yang Lian 楊煉, John Cayley, the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, Vanessa Place, Kenneth Goldsmith, Christian Bök, Brandon Som, Yi Sha 伊沙, Hsia Yü 夏宇, and Tan Lin. Edmond develops an alternative account of modernist and contemporary literature as defined not by innovation—as in Ezra Pound’s slogan “make it new”—but by a system of continuous copying. Make It the Same transforms global literary history, showing how the old hierarchies of original and derivative, center and periphery are overturned when we recognize copying as the engine of literary change.

 

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