Where Tomasula (in his own words) makes “no attempt to historicize the field,” preferring to offer “a snapshot” of a vibrant body of conceptual literary art, Gonzalez in this review arrogates the position Tomasula passes on, and proposes that the many texts in Tomasula's "immensely rewarding" anthology continue in the spirit of postmodern literary forms and show the continuing potency of the postmodern toolbox.
Steve Tomasula’s robust new anthology delivers its readers a dazzling variety of aesthetic artifacts, as the list after the title’s colon suggests. The diversity across its 500+ pages and 14+ hours of online content separates Conceptualisms from collections of a more mainstream bent. He has gathered online animations, recorded performances, and interactive platforms along with experimental works of fiction, essays, and poetry; in the collection’s last section, we see a transcript, a legal summary, a grant proposal, and a contract, all of which Tomasula argues can be classed as literature (while also proposing that the entries raise the question of what the term “literature” means): they all, in one way or another, foreground language. In his introduction to the text as well as the eight short previews before each of the anthology’s primary sections—a ninth is an online-only contributor list with brief biographies—Tomasula links the wide array of entries together by stressing two additional commonalities.
First, Tomasula unifies the works he’s collected as conceptual, which means “writing in which form both conveys meaning and is the object of meaning” (v). Conceptual writing “emphasizes text as medium, the material nature of language” (x). It is “literature that takes its own medium as part of its subject matter, or works against the assumptions of the status quo” (xi). For Tomasula, creative work that’s self-aware, that calls attention to what it is and how it was created, generates the possibility of a more critically aware audience, more capable of realizing their interaction with systems that pass themselves off as natural, inevitable, or invisible.
Second, he wants us to see these works as having a particularly contemporary relevance. Each entry is “an experiment by an author in search of a form that would speak to [his or her] contemporaries” (xi). When these experiments go well, or as Tomasula puts it, “if the aesthetics of [the anthology’s works] speak to contemporary readers, it’s because they echo contemporary culture in general” (xv). Such claims position the entries in a complicated, very nearly paradoxical way. If the entries are meant to shake our sense of the contemporary status quo, then they must not exactly fit neatly into the contemporary quo. We might instead say that the “echo” imbeds the idea of an unusual reflection, so that the works’ very contemporaneity lies in their critical potential, becoming the source that reveals the constructed nature of contemporary culture because of its oblique relation to mainstream cultural frameworks. Tomasula avers that “representing the world via conventions of the world is to reinforce the status quo” (2): even if conventional work emerges in the present, according to Tomasula’s positioning, it may not feel contemporary because of an essentially conservative relation to norms of representation (and, presumably, political, social, and ethical norms by extension). Or, I might add, more conventional writing even in its recent forms may feel more passé once you encounter Conceptualisms. This was certainly the case for me, as Conceptualisms has considerably reshaped my sense of the shape of contemporary literature and the timelines often invoked to contextualize it.
Despite Tomasula’s emphasis on the contemporary feel of the collection, he is careful to explain that experimental or self-aware literature of course has a history. He invokes Marcel DuChamp, Gertrude Stein, and Tristam Shandy repeatedly in the introduction to recognize the forerunners of the figures in the anthology: “[t]he tradition of conceptual writing seems less like a movement (the avant-garde), or period (postmodernism), than an open-ended activity” (xv). Thus we are seeing current iterations of an ongoing practice or tendency, ones that seem particularly urgent or compelling, though Tomasula stretches to include “three generations of conceptual writers at work, from canonical masters to authors the reader may be encountering for the first time” (xviii).
These writers are, to reiterate, largely unified by their attention to the mediatic form their aesthetic production uses. It is perhaps for this reason that Tomasula’s drawing of the present focuses much more heavily on technological shifts than, say, political or social ones. Because Tomasula defines conceptual literature as attentive to form, media, and the materiality of language, he aligns this work with what Matthew Mullins has called “the neomaterialisms of our current critical climate (3).” This emphasis on the material, rather than the ideological or discursive, also manifests in Mary Holland’s recent take on American literature after postmodernism: one of the most vibrant approaches, she argues, is a “material realism” that includes Tomasula’s own novels (55). The turn to these materialisms, largely influenced by Bruno Latour, demands that we consider the actual construction of our social experience and the agents and tools that do the constructing. Though he does not invoke other philosophical materialisms, Tomasula’s affinity with them is clear, as he consistently draws attention to the ways writers and creative figures self-consciously manipulate the words, pixels, images, pages, and screens their work deploys and appears upon: conceptual literature “emphasizes text as medium, the material nature of language” and exhibits its “thinking of writing as a medium as well as a material” (xvii). Referring to longstanding critical commonplaces, Tomasula says that “we normally describe form in literature in linguistic terms—the sonnet, the haiku—that ignore the material nature of language” (243). Poems and performances that emphasize the sonic quality of spoken language remind us that “[s]ound itself is material” (434).
I emphasize this focus on materiality because both Tomasula’s framing of the collection and the manifest content of the entries do not, generally speaking, focus on elements of the present that are often conjured in descriptions of the past several decades: “the global triumphs of consumer society, the pervasion of geopolitical and environmental risk, and the precarious conditions of postindustrial work (14),” the terms Theodore Martin has used to describe the contemporary landscape, are all absent; we see no references to neoliberalism, a resurgent neo-fascist political Right, or globalization’s darker sides. Consider this list of “changes in culture”: “the erosion of privacy, the rise of movements such as BLM or #MeToo, or the new ways of communicating brought on by technical change” (98). Just a page later, he writes that “we cannot choose to live in a world that has never heard of Derrida, Feminism, data-mining, Dolly the Sheep, the iPad, BLM, drones, or jihad” (99). Of the eleven examples in these two lists, six are related to technological changes, and throughout the collection, social movements get much less space for discussion than automatization, mechanization, and scientific exploration.
Holland, writing on Tomasula’s own fiction, puts what she sees as axiomatic to Tomasula’s thinking in these terms: “exposure of frameworks of meaning is one kind of truth art can aim for, and is the crucial job of art” (90). This idea comes up over and over again in Tomasula’s commentary within Conceptualisms: “much conceptual contemporary writing reveals anew how habits of speech mirror habits of thought embedded in official or dominant culture: they rework states of common sense” (ix; emphasis added). Part of what it reveals is the “bureaucracies, habits of mind, and other systems that colonize the way we speak, and so the ways we think” (vii). The payoff, then, of the art Tomasula makes and passionately advocates for has the familiar (hence my highlighting of “anew”) aim of defamiliarization—new and compelling forms of defamiliarization, new and common things to defamiliarize, but an ultimate aim that has been identified as the dominant mode of vanguard literature of the modern and postmodern period.
To illustrate this point, that Tomasula is essentially sticking with the value of a defamiliarizing strategy, let us consider his decision to include Bob Perelman’s “China” (1981) in the anthology’s first section. “China,” as many readers recall, held a privileged position in one of the most important literary-critical texts of the past several decades: Frederic Jameson’s original “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” essay (reprinted as the first chapter in Postmodernism Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism) listed “China” as an example of the “schizophrenic disjunction” that he saw becoming “generalized as a cultural style” (29). It’s not only the poem’s use of disconnected observations and sentences that contributes to readerly disorientation; as Perelman himself notes in his Conceptualisms contributor’s note, the poem’s koan-like lines—“The people who taught us to count were being very kind./It’s always time to leave./If it rains, you either have your umbrella or you don’t” (lines 3-5, Tomasula 16)—make a bit more sense as captions to “a Chinese picture-book bought in Chinatown,” the purchase of which, Perelman explains, was the occasion that generated the poem. For Jameson, this vital but absent context is a problem: “the unity of the poem is no longer to be found within its language but outside itself, in the bound unity of another, absent book” (30). Perelman actually brings up Jameson’s take on his poem within his biographical space in Conceptualisms, a fact that arguably underlines my point here—that it’s hard to separate this poem from Jameson’s reading of it, at least for a certain audience.
If we can bracket Jameson’s assumptions here (when have we ever interpreted something using only what’s inside it?), we might consider his hyperbolic-but-still-useful statement that “China” was part of a broader “cultural style” in 1984. Its appearance here suggests that Tomasula wants to evoke 1981 Language poetry as a key component of the present, and perhaps sees this cultural style as having lingering, contemporary value—not as an example of a problematic postmodern ahistoricism, but (perhaps) for its ability to evoke the interpretative issues Jameson himself had. It’s possible, then, to see Tomasula invoking or hailing a negative take on this sort of writing but then not addressing it—as if Jameson’s complaints about texts that are “organized systematically and formally to short-circuit an older type of social and historical interpretation” (23) did not exist or aren’t worth considering. Tomasula wants to short-circuit your interpretation, even though we’ve seen questions raised about this short-circuiting. He is sticking with heterogeneity, sticking with undecidability, sticking with depthlessness, despite those strategies having met with scrutiny, and, one must add, charges of themselves being passé.
Even many of Tomasula’s arguments for the value of conceptual literature seem to echo early celebrations of postmodern style. Conceptual literature shows us that “aesthetic choices are conscious and political, not natural” (xii); it “often works against binary divisions and hierarchy” (313). Electronic literature “causes us to rethink…assumptions about fundamentals as basic as what we mean by a ‘story,’ or ‘writing,’ or ‘reading” (230). Summarizing the 4th section, a collection of mixed-media art, he writes, “Collage seems to be the glove that fits the fingers of other contemporary makers: the dissipation of origins, the death of the author, the writerly text” (331). While this last sentence comes after one proposing an intensification—collage is “even more suited as an expression” of the 21st century than it was of the 20th—the examples that signal “the contemporary” recall the last century’s theoretical turns, ones tied to Derrida and Roland Barthes rather than more recent popular theorists.
So while Tomasula refers in an earlier quotation to postmodernism as a period, lists it as a previous name for conceptual literature, and uses the past tense to describe it, the term nevertheless feels relevant to considering the anthology’s positioning. The text features a number of writers who also show up in the 1998 Norton Anthology of Postmodern Fiction (William Gass, Carole Maso, Robert Coover, and David Foster Wallace) and poets who are commonly associated with postmodernism in Perelman, John Ashberry, and Harryette Mullen, despite Tomasula’s insistence on the entries speaking to a contemporary moment. Tomasula makes a very reasonable decision not to place the book into a literary-historical frame—he states this directly near the end of the introduction—but I think this association or connection deserves consideration, both for thinking about the literary-historical place of the collection and to explain why it has done so much to change my sense of the literary landscape.
Consider one of the claims that Tomasula makes right at the start of the introduction: conceptual art is in every museum in the country, suggesting its position as culturally significant has been secured by important gatekeepers in that field. The anthology’s subtitle demands that the creative forms within the collection be considered equal to contemporary art, and Tomasula makes several gestures at drawing this equivalence in the text:
if the 19th-century novel is the literary equivalent of a painting of a clipper ship on the high seas, works like Eduardo Kac’s “Biopoetry” or George Quasha’s “Poetry Is” or Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper can be thought of as the literary equivalent of contemporary conceptual art. A different emphasis. A different orientation: one that privileges the conceptual in literature instead of the mimetic (xiii)
In this comparison, it feels like the value of contemporary conceptual art is the constant, while the value of contemporary conceptual literature is the variable. Recalling the museum point here, is Tomasula asking us to consider the canonization of one form of conceptual aesthetics as a reason for a reconsideration of a contemporary literary canon? But isn’t the canonization of conceptual art—the comfort that corporations have, for instance, with conceptual sculptures in their lobbies and atria—part of the status quo that conceptual literature is meant to make us critically aware of?
Jeffrey T. Nealon’s influential Post-Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Just-in-time Capitalism is one of many compelling arguments that suggest that postmodernism ultimately moved from the aesthetic and philosophical vanguard to the mainstream. Witness the widespread skepticism toward received narratives and configurations of power, the Silicon Valley “move fast and break things” ethos, the embrace of cultural and generic hybridity, the centrality of endless innovation to neoliberalism (what Nealon calls the normalization of the Pound dictum to “endlessly mak[e] it new” ). Andrew Strombeck has written about conceptual art’s surprising parallel to a postindustrial economy, as each is driven by repackaging, remaking, reframing and renaming—and that each of these gestures is understood as innovative. Perhaps this is what Tomasula means by the works in the collection reflecting contemporary culture, but Tomasula includes no recognition that the methods of aesthetic creation he celebrates can resemble the hegemonic modes of production.
At the same time, few accounts of the contemporary literary sphere would put conceptual literature at the center of critical discussions. Prestigious awards and syllabi may include experimental work, but it is, generally speaking, resurgent traditional literary forms that have supplanted postmodernist literature in receiving status and acclaim. Nearly all pronouncements of literary postmodernism’s death—see Stephen Burn’s chronology of its collapse, among many others—proposed that the new literary dominant would turn away from abstraction, inconclusiveness, and linguistic play. The revived predominance of the lyric poem, New Sincerity in fiction, the prominence of realism of all kinds (Holland counts 20 kinds of realism in The Moral Worlds of Contemporary Fiction): while nearly all stories of the shift from postmodernism to literature’s current form suggest postmodernism has left a mark on literary production, postmodern literature’s hallmarks seem to have fallen out of favor. There is, of course, pushback against leaving behind the experimental or challenging components of postmodernism. Rachel Greenwald Smith, among others, has problematized the “compromise” literature hailed by critics as a helpful supplement to the limits of an earlier avant-garde. In Smith’s account, Jonathan Franzen and other “compromise” authors attempt to placate audiences rather than continue to challenge them, emerging from a renewed desire to produce literature that “ha[s] a value for its capacity to provide a feeling of emotional connection” rather than cognitive defamiliarization (38). Smith’s examples of work that eschews easy affective pleasures—Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, Laird Hunt’s The Exquisite, Rachel Kusnher’s The Flamethrowers—could arguably fit into Tomasula’s collection. Her point, however, is that the new critical norm (at least in the mid-2010s) lent esteem toward a turn back to the traditional forms of literature Tomasula derides.
Tomasula, again, admits that he made “no attempt to historicize the field,” preferring to offer “a snapshot” of this vibrant body of work (xviii). If I can arrogate the position Tomasula passed on, however, I would propose that these texts continue in the spirit of postmodern literary forms and show the continuing potency of the postmodern toolbox. We might then read the inclusion of Perelman, Ashberry, and Robert Coover as signals that they created a lineage that was not extinguished but instead flowered outside the spotlight of mainstream literary critical attention. It then seems even more significant to point out the gap between the mainstreaming of conceptual art and that of conceptual literature, and we can point to conceptual literature’s resistance to marketability and normalization as evidence of its still-extant subversive qualities. While many of the writers and creative figures Tomasula includes have experienced some degree of commercial success and attained safe positions in universities, he rightly indicates that conceptual literature is actually defined by its resistance to easy consumption—it is worth contemplating the difference in the challenge presented, for instance, between a difficult poem and an abstract sculpture, despite the similarities Tomasula is fond of pointing out.
Among Tomasula’s authors, Lynne Tillman, Maso, Mark Z. Danielewski, Percival Everett, Nathaniel Mackey, George Saunders and Mullen are often anthologized and paid nicely for campus visits, their work rarely lands on bestseller lists (a problem thematized in Everett’s Erasure ) and often even campus syllabi. As Martin Paul Eve has suggested and the earlier Jameson quotation proposed, their work is inhospitable to the methods of interpretation that remain dominant in most literature classrooms, and the great majority of entries are not the stuff of book clubs. There are few institutional homes for creative work this relentlessly linguistically, visually, and auditorially innovative and challenging, for literary and literary-adjacent work that is difficult to categorize, that demands consistent attention to not only what literary presses produce but also exciting developments in sometimes remote corners of the Internet.
One of the many deeply useful payoffs of Conceptualisms, then, is its implicit proposition of a timeline that connects Perelman and Ashberry to Claudia Rankine and Lily Hoang, showing that the predominantly white and male postmodern canon is nevertheless relevant to historicizing the work of younger writers of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as the visual experimentation of Lesley Dill, the “found” artifacts of David Buuck and Vanessa Place, the audio/visual narratives of The High Muck a Muck and the interactive, 3-D forms accompanied by short poems created by Mez Breeze. The text is thus a love letter to this “open-ended activity” that the form of the text presents as a kind of lineage. We see a similar impulse at work in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s similarly massive and ambitious Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2011), which includes Kathy Acker, Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, and John Cage as well as Diderot and DuChamp. Yet by focusing on more contemporary figures and including a sprinkling of their immediate postmodern forerunners (no Diderot here!), Conceptualisms achieves its desired end of primarily focusing on newly-established, not-yet-canonized, and emergent writers, artists, and producers.
I invoke this literary history despite the diversity in the collection because, as Tomasula successfully argues, it is primarily linguistic manipulation that we see in Conceptualisms, though in many of the online works it’s essentially manipulation by supplement. Before the first section of the anthology, Tomasula acknowledges that “[t]o varying degrees, nearly all the authors in this anthology have, by a variety of means, subverted the passage of language from use, to repetition, to convention” and require readers “to focus on the workings of language itself” (1). Again, I see this focus as key to understanding why the anthology illustrates the critical value of the literary experiments it highlights.
Often, we see entries that thematize the importance and difficulty of conceptual literary art. Gass’s entry, the essay “A Little Song of Suffering on Behalf of Prose,” speaks directly to the difficulties writers face by opposing them to the ones visual artists encounter. He quotes Doris Lessing on the difference between visual and literary experience—“[t]he rule is this, that succession in time is the province of the poet, coexistence in space that of the artist.” Gass glosses the quote: “the movement of meaning through a paragraph depends upon the reader’s not having something on the stove” (129). You can walk away from a sculpture without having to start your viewing over again, but you do need—or at least you’re normally inclined—to return to the specific sentence you were reading, especially if the sentence did not have a clearly logical relation to the one before it. This conventional relationship of sentences and paragraphs to a chronological unfolding, one that must follow an order, leads to Gass’s “envy” for photography’s “instantaneous results” and music’s “emotional immediacy” (128). Twice, he indicates a writerly sense of lack: “[w]e want what we don’t have”/“we want what we can’t have” because “we want interpenetration, not nesting; we want new notions, not fresh juxtapositions” (126, 130). Gass’s fictitious “we” resolves this problem by understanding the specificity of the medium and observing the precise working of literature—the material arrangement of words—and, in turn, creating literature that rewards “get[ting] inside the syntax, spend[ing] time in the space created by the prose” (135). The theme here is a changing relationship to the axioms of the reader-writer-text relationship that begins with an awareness of the medium and plays with its possibilities.
At other times, the authors in the collection get at the norms of language, which are inseparable from norms of other kinds, through compelling parallels. In an excerpt from Adorno’s Noise called “REGARD FOR THE OBJECT RATHER THAN COMMUNICATION IS SUSPECT,” Carla Harryman walks us through a set of unusual ways a group of people she calls “we” begin relating to baskets—“simply standing by or with them, being photographed next to them, or wearing them in the manner of a refrigerator wearing a magnet”—and these new methods reveal that “[t]he baskets themselves are transposed by our behaviors, which undermine subject and object so that one is no longer certain which is which” (90). When we change our relations to objects, then the normative “utility of the basket becomes a matter of indifference. In the words of noise artist Jessica Rylan, there is ‘enough unpredictability that you really have to focus on it.’ For some peculiar reason, now that the basket no longer has a utilitarian purpose, I want to turn it upside down” (91). We see many of Tomasula’s writers treating their sentences like these baskets.
Harry Mathews’s “Translation and the OuLiPo: The Case of the Persevering Maltese” gets into these questions of use as well, tracing the OuLiPo practice of translating without foregrounding an equivalence of meaning, instead “drawing attention precisely to elements of language that normally pass us by, concerned as we naturally are with making sense of what we read” (37). The OuLiPo translator might focus on words that sound alike, a method we see carried out in David Melnick’s Men in Aida excerpt in Conceptualism’s 7th section: Melnick translates The Illiad homophonically, rather than aiming to find terms with the same meaning in both English and Greek. Rylan’s point, about unpredictability generating attention, might be modified to say that we have to pay a different kind of attention once we are outside a utilitarian relationship to reading. You can read Men in Aida and check to see if the water’s boiling without losing the primary charge of the text. To locate its pleasures is less an experience of dutiful chronological attention and more an openness to the pleasures its sometimes nonsensical, sometimes lovely language offers.
Like Men in Aida, many other entries make us think about what we privilege when we read, how we read, and how less self-aware texts present themselves; Tomasula’s authors often generate this response in engaging ways, such as in Deb Olin Unferth’s “Brevity”:
It could be so much worse.
They held machine guns. In the distance, jungle.
I will not go back to him, she says (162).
Rather than offering groups of sentences that do the work of generating a narrative, Unferth completes what might be understood as fictional requirements of genres with these brief entries. She satirizes the genres and norms she includes (“Backstory: He had a brother who lived for only seven days”) by showing how simply they can be abbreviated, while also initiating the process of readerly interpretation—what sort of text would have this as a backstory? How many adventures and romances have we encountered that are reducible to these short sentences, and what other possibilities might there be from this start?
The examples above all work through linguistic play that is primarily organized on the page in lines, stanzas, sentences and paragraphs. The collection of entries in Section 4: “Architecture of the Page/Writing as Visual Form/Visual Form as Writing” offer a particularly strong set of examples of authors using the page or screen in unorthodox ways, often in how they display words or sentences. In Narratology, Johanna Drucker uses two or three different fonts over the tops of (sometimes-related) images, and the writing in each font works in its own tonal register and generates a different narrative direction. Hoang’s Changing is built around a group of six six-line paragraphs on each page; the paragraphs alternate their foci and can be organized differently, forcing the reader to compile six different timelines that may not appear in the same section of the page. Hoang’s approach intensifies, in some ways, the impact of multiple-storyline television or polyvocal narration by making us manage so many components of the speaker’s biography and experiences, sometimes in ways that contradict, overlap, repeat, or jump in time. Tom Phillips’s Hummement isolates words from an 1893 novel to create a pseudo-narrative while, in his most recent edition, he puts graphics over the original words—the words Phillips highlights remain foregrounded, but rather than plain text in the background, we see the text on top of photographs. Graham Rawle’s Women’s World is a fantastic achievement, comprised entirely out of words cut out from women’s magazines of the 1950’s and 1960s that manages to tell a deeply engrossing story.
Each of these works present readers with a text that makes its method of creation obvious. Tomasula returns to this point again and again—the way a work of conceptual art makes its aesthetic status manifest—and in this way celebrates less artistic genius and more material labor. Tomasula favors “writing that is informed by a posthuman ethos [which] is at odds with an ethos based on the uniqueness of the individual, and its cousins, especially originality” (463). Rawle and Phillips use methods that illustrate that the words on the page did not originate with them, but the actual creative thinking and physical labor that goes into the aesthetic production is nonetheless laudable. The same goes for Stephanie Strickland and Ian Hatcher’s Let Liberty Ring!, an online interface that places quotes and paraphrases about liberty from famous Americans in a seven-point layout but which appear in different orders (i.e. a Melville quote might appear in one iteration but not the next five or six). The found-texts by David Buuck, who included the transcript of the United 93 flight on September 11, 2001 in his Black Box Series, and Vanessa Place, whose Tragodia presents court documents about child sexual abuse, do the same—these aren’t original works. But they are profoundly affecting ones nevertheless.
The active labor of writing, composing, or designing is also highlighted in the online entries, especially in the collaborative nature of the video-audio-text creations like What We Will by John Cayley with Douglas Cape and Giles Perring or “Dakota” and “Nippon” from Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. The “credits” listed for many of the online works, too, remind us that no such “credits” existed for the printer, the editor, or other participants in the processes that writers use to generate the works that dominates the other sections (we don’t learn the name, for instance, of the Black woman who has Dickinson’s poem written on her in “Blue Poem Girl” unless you look at Dill’s contributor note). Realizing this difference comes possible because of their juxtaposition to one another. In two entries, the name in the table of contents presents the writing of other entities, though in a different way than the Buck and Place texts mentioned above: Nick Thurston’s notorious “Poems from Of the Subcontract, Or Principles of Poetic Right” is comprised of poems written by massively underpaid workers, and David Jhave Johnston’s “Spreeder: For EPC 20 4-5 AM Sept 11 2014” captures an hour’s worth of a poetry-generating algorithim’s output. Here we have more classically conceptual art, where an idea might be the primary payoff: Tomasula writes of work like Jhave’s that, “judged by the standards of lyric poetry, current machine poetry is almost uniformly awful. But to judge it this way is to overlook the raison de’tre of the machine poem” (464). These works subtract the author’s personal signature from the text itself, so we are not intended to read for the beauty or originality of a single person’s authentic voice or expression. We are instead thinking about the value, meaning, and purpose of language itself: if one enduring Romantic belief about creative writing is that everyone has a voice, does the computer? Does the contract-laborer’s work still deserve to be measured by its authenticity? Again, the labor of creative thinking, creative composition, and automatic production work to generate compelling questions. In Alan Bigleow’s “Silence,” we see “a story in seven parts.” The viewer presses an arrow and periods appear in different parts of the screen, while the caption “Audio is On” remains consistent (even though there’s no audio). At the end of the seven sections, Bigelow lists the code for “the Cage text,” which you need to cut and paste into a code converter Bigelow links to. For your labor, you see that the code repeats this sentence over and over: “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” The point of all this work isn’t to get to Bigelow’s subjective interior—it’s an homage to Cage’s own play with expectations, dramatizing the mental framework we bring to bear when we an encounter aesthetic object. It also prompts thinking about the work we don’t always realize that we do when we process language (how much different is the binary-code translator from a human converting signifiers to signifieds?).
Bigelow’s work is not the only one that requires a form of physical interaction beyond conventional page-flipping or clicking. Many of the online entries here play with the expectation of frictionlessness anticipated by the phrase “TLDR.” You have to learn how to interact with What We Will, to make its characters speak. You have to painstakingly click on one frame after another in Illya Szilak and Cyril Tsiboulski’s Queerskins to hear all the pieces of the story. The intense rhythmic background and quick screen-shifts of the Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries stories were mesmerizing but overwhelming—when I missed words in “Dakota” because of the intentionally sped-up pace of text on the screen, I had to scroll back and then figure out how to slow down the display, before questioning my own impulse to encounter the language as though complete comprehension were the point. In these examples we can draw away interesting points about how juxtaposition and chronology and arrangement impact what we encounter, even if it’s a re-encountering. But we also get an education on interaction, how our fingers, eyes, ears, and minds participate in the production and consumption of narrative and the construction of meaning (and when we have come to expect limited or half-hearted participation in reading or watching). At other points, we get a different meta-sense of our online experience: J.R. Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud combines quotations from a classic text about clouds with facts about the incredible environmental impact of “cloud”-based computing, which the reader is likely actively doing—complicit critique that informs, or perhaps reminds, the audience about its own complicity with environmental degradation.
Beyond the diversity of approaches I’ve listed above, I want to take a moment to applaud the generally high quality of the entries: I found myself breathless during the online version of Nam Le’s “The Boat,” created with collaborators Matt Huynh, Kylie Boltin, and Matt Smith. Having read the story in text version, I felt that seeing the characters represented graphically in an interface that lets the reader move through the narrative in multiple ways, accompanied by a haunting soundtrack, heightened the aesthetic force of Le’s original work. Anna Joy Springer’s poems, spoken over instrumental music, produced a complicated listening experience—Springer introduces images that unfolded in surprising directions, all without accompanying text to moor the listener entering Springer’s dreamy, gothic “forests” (the same goes with Nathaniel Mackey’s and David Antin’s poems: without the words to read, you must attend much differently). Salvador Plasencia’s People of Paper tells a captivating magical-realist creation story in crystal-clear, musical prose; Michael Mejia’s “Coyote Takes Us Home” swings magical realism in the opposite direction, so that the two children trying to cross the border move through a hellscape filled with monsters and demons and maintain a placid narrative demeanor throughout. The potency of these selections speaks to Tomasula’s eye for talent, calling attention to severely under-discussed figures (one figure Tomasula includes twice, Jhave, seems to have stopped making art, at least on his Vimeo page; the Youtube video Tomasula links to for Douglas Kearney’s devastating poem “Runaway Tongue” has far fewer views than its quality merits).
The anthology is not without conventional, or at least more traditionally organized, texts. Brian Evenson’s “House Rules” is a fascinating story with a complicated framing, but it unfolds chronologically and ultimately includes all the pieces you need to understand it. Lidia Yuknavich’s The Chronology of Water includes short paragraphs introduced by different years, and the writing is rich with insight and power—though it winds up more or less like a complex autobiography; the same could be said, minus the play with chronology, about the gorgeously-written excerpt “Winter” from Debra Di Blasi’s Selling the Farm: Descants from a Recollected Past. These works show Tomasula’s affection for what he calls “well-written work” in the introduction (xvi). Even my own willingness to single these affecting, intricately-organized texts and call them “conventional” reveals the reorientation that’s occurred during my time reading and thinking about Conceptualisms.
I kept thinking, too, about how the way I read Conceptualisms itself dramatized the material work of reading. The PDF of the collection I used was open in Adobe Acrobat. I would have to open the Conceptualism website inside a web browser to get to the online-only videos or platforms listed in the Table of Contents. I would have to move from the opening page to the tab “Online Works,” then move over to a new tab that would open when I clicked on the entries there. Sometimes the work isn’t finished there: on Bigelow’s site, for instance, you have to search for the entries Tomasula lists. I would occasionally then have to go back to the “Contributors” section to get context for the works I’d just completed—it really helps, for instance, to know that Bhanu Kapil intentionally mixed up the answers to her survey questions in the excerpt from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, creating a strange but moving composite “interview” intended to give a snapshot of Indian womanhood; when reading, I wasn’t sure whether the interviews occurred at all. In other words, the anthology often required me to do more than simply continue through the text to get the full effect of the anthology’s assets. This is not a complaint about user-friendliness: it is an observation about how my experience of the collection, in some ways, mirrors the entries’ demands on the reader and the kinds of awareness that result from dealing with those demands.
The collection leaves the reader with the impression of the vigor and fertility of the writers Tomasula has gathered and the continuing significance of experimental work. Tomasula gestures toward the breadth of this style of production in his introductions to each section, which often reference works that are not in that particular grouping or that aren’t in the collection at all (Strickland’s Vniverse, for instance, comes up twice but isn’t listed in the table of contents). Here, Tomasula hints that the reader can carry on the work begun by reading this text by noting these names for future reading and that the selections could be organized in other ways (or offer multiple forms of significance).
Lastly, to return to that literary-historical timeline I mentioned earlier: reading through Tomasula’s immensely rewarding collection got me thinking about the periodizing impulse, which often uses politics, ethics or economics as a grounding for framing the value of literature. Such timelines of course also require the critic to know something outside the original text, to draw on non-literary discourses to make claims for the value of literature; these approaches also sometimes sneak in what Mark Grief derisively referred to as a new kind of critical “piety,” with a set of de-facto, leftist expectations that academic critics shape and adhere to. In some ways, then, I found it refreshing that Tomasula avoids any claims about politics or ethics outside a sense of the status quo as problematic, of the bureaucratic coding of our thinking. Yet then again, as I wrote above, it does seem like the political and social payoffs Tomasula imagines feel very akin to arguments we have heard before.
To bring up one influential argument that might cross swords with Tomasula, Anna Kornbluh’s “We Have Never Been Critical: Toward the Novel as Critique” builds on Marxist approaches to literary criticism to make an argument for eschewing the affirmative norms of the “post-critique” movement led by Rita Felski. Contra Felski’s desire to stop suspicious criticisms, Kornbluh outlines a form of ideology critique that she vociferously defends. She reads Jameson’s style of reading as a method worth revisiting—Jameson, she says, “has never read a perfect text,” but his demand that a work ultimately create a unity of its elements expresses an important utopian desire:
[H]e seeks critique in the very forms of the novels he engages—in the effect of interplay between different formal features of the texts. It is this laminating of plot, style, narrative point of view, imagery, theme to one another in the interest of working out problems—this extrusion of linguistic elements into the volume of an idea—that instantiates novel thinking, that localizes novel critique. Jameson’s method of reading for form tacitly illustrates that formal actuation in the novel might itself model utopian constructions—its articulated levels, its resonant cohesion, its structural inclusion (405).
Kornbluh’s central claim is that we can be critical of works that fail to “model utopian constructions.” Of course, we should note that she offers a particular vision of utopia here, one based on “cohesion” and “inclusion.” Even the idea of an “interplay between different formal features” that need to be integrated proposes a sense of unity as itself utopian.
If the works in Conceptualisms often push against unity and cohesion, are they working against utopian thinking? If they do not match a vision of formal integration, are they modeling an infinite regress that denies the consensus necessary for political action or that disallows political affinity? By Tomasula’s own admission, the works in the collection “reflect a contemporary sense of narrative in an era that is not so concerned with aesthetic wholes as it is with difference of all kinds: racial, economic, political, gender, but especially ways of thinking” (312). It might be possible to read Conceptualisms itself as a symptom of an ongoing fragmentation of society, a text engaged in the very fracturing of norms that has eaten away at epistemological certainty and democratic agreement. I kept thinking about the category of the “post-truth” as I read through the anthology: Mathews writes, “facts are lies. Not because they are false, but because facts belong to the past—to what was, never to what is" (37). It feels to me that the collection may have benefitted from a contextualization that considered the position of claims amid, for instance, the hysterical Right-leaning demand for amnesia about racial history or the conspiracy spinning of QAnon.
Yet Tomasula’s very emphasis on these as works of creative art, whose province is to get us to think and feel, lets the writing itself here stand out. Frank Rogaczewksi’s playful prose-poem “The Fate of Humanity in Verse,” which appears in Section 5, begins with the speaker reading about the George W. Bush administration’s mendacity in the New Yorker and deciding to write about it. Rogaczewksi considers the place of other political poets, including Langston Hughes, before turning to think about his own other careers:
paperboy for the Chicago American, gardening helper at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, wall washer and floor stripper at Children’s Memorial Hospital, laborer at Tru-test Paints, cashier at Irv’s Pharmacy, elevator operator at some unremembered Gold Coast high rise a few doors from The Drake, journalist for a lefty newspaper, laborer at umpteen other sweatshops in Chicago and New York whose names will not be mentioned, hob grinder…and adjunct college teacher (335).
The list of jobs becomes important when the speaker mentions that, except in his role as a poet, he has never “wondered whether my particular contribution made an impact” (335). We might draw from this observation something akin to Gass’s claim about the common writerly desire for writing to be something other than writing. All the writer or content-creator knows is that someone will watch or read their work—that’s it. What happens during that interaction? Can we anticipate its political efficacy based on a pre-existing set of criteria? Can we judge it according to a set of literary or aesthetic values that predate our interaction with the work? Or might we see the difficulty critics would have unifying these texts as an argument for criticism as Geertzian thick description, or the calling attention of audiences to compelling, well-executed art?
Conceptualisms seems to suggest, as Holland wrote of Tomasula’s own work, that the job of art is to reframe the thinking of the audience. This is, in some ways, a modest claim for the work of art, one that has political, ethical, and social resonances but that is not necessarily committed to a long-term outcome. Still, the richness of the work gathered here is such that the anthology has tremendous value for showing the potency and richness of this ongoing tradition, a wonderful sense of its wide horizon. That is, if we are going to tell the story of literature in the present, we must recognize that the impulses that were vanguard in the postmodern moment remain compelling and effective tools for artmaking and merit a significant place in descriptions of today’s literature. In other words, though I teach and write under the guise of being a contemporary literature scholar, Tomasula has driven me to question the narratives I have written about and taught.
Eve, Martin Paul. Literature Against Criticism: University English and Contemporary Fiction in Conflict. Open Book Publishers, 2016.
Holland, Mary. The Moral Worlds of Contemporary Realism. Bloomsbury, 2020.
Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Captialism. Duke UP: 2003.
Kornbluh, Anna. “We Have Never Been Critical: Toward the Novel as Critique.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 50.3: 2017. 397–408.
Mullins, Matthew. Postmodernism in Pieces: Materializing the Social. Oxford UP, 2016.
Smith, Rachel Greenwald. Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism. Cambridge UP, 2015.
Strombeck, Andrew. “The Post-Fordist Motorcycle: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and the 1970s
Crisis in Fordist Capitalism.” Contemporary Literature 56.3: 2015. 450–75.