A Note on Conceptualism

A novel with no intimation of a story whatsoever[….]

Plotless. Characterless.

Yet seducing the reader into turning the pages nonetheless. […]


Which is to say, with no sequence of events.

Which is to say, with no indicated passage of time. […]

A novel with no setting. […]

Ergo meaning finally without descriptions. […]

A novel with no overriding central motivations[….]

With no social themes, i.e., no picture of society. […]

A novel entirely without symbols. (Markson 2-8)

This is not a novel. Such is the title and the ambivalent warning and enticement to readers of an odd book by David Markson, which recalls Magritte’s famous representation of a pipe that is not itself a pipe (La trahison des images). The title should advise potential readers that they will not encounter the traditional conventions of a novel in Markson’s book, and this statement may simultaneously repel some readers and coax or seduce others who desire an experience with something that is novel but unlike conventional novels.

This is not a novel. I might offer this potentially fascinating statement about each of the conceptual works that appear at the end of this post in spite of the fact that I am not quite sure whether any of the creators of these particular objects would confer the identity of a novel on their productions—not that such artistic or authorial intention would matter. Markson’s programmatic description above offers a remarkable sketch of many of these works. Few contain intelligible narratives, characters, settings, or themes, although fragments of these may appear depending on the enthusiasm and imagination of the reader (who, as Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place note at the beginning of Notes on Conceptualisms, is necessary for the (impossible) completion of conceptual writing). In fact, many contain no words at all aside from their titles and colophon information. Nevertheless, I am at the present moment inclined to label as novel and novels these works that, among other things, seem to question the boundaries between art and literature and strive to resist these potentially limiting categorizations. In my failed and inconsistent experience with these works, they are novels.

“In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. . . . The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. . . . It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with conceptual art to make [the] work mentally interesting to the spectator, and therefore usually [the artist] would want it to become emotionally dry. There is no reason to suppose, however, that the conceptual artist is out to bore the viewer. It is only the expectation of an emotional kick, to which one conditioned to expressionist art is accustomed, that would deter the viewer from perceiving this art.” (LeWitt 12)

Writing in the aftermath of the popularization of abstract expressionism, Sol LeWitt offers this definition in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967). LeWitt’s emphasis on a passionless experience of the (purportedly emotionally dry and mentally interesting) work of conceptual art makes sense from a historical perspective—(abstract) expressionist art, which had become in a sense conventional, trained and constituted some viewers in such a way that they had difficulty apprehending conceptual art as art because it did not (according to LeWitt) deliver the emotional payoff they were taught to expect from art— but it also strikes me as being troublingly inconsistent with my experience of conceptual art and writing half a century later. Although conceptual works do indeed mentally interest and engage me, I am also stuck by the fact that I register an emotional kick or intense sensational force in my experience with these works. Indeed, the “emotional” interest and “mental” interest of these works are seemingly inextricable from one another for me.

“I still see no reason for you to read my edition. My works necessitate a different form of engagement, you need to learn to read differently. Information as material turns readers into thinkers. These works are meant to be thought about which . . . means they require a ‘thinkership’ rather than a ‘readership.’” (Morris)

In 2009, Simon Morris published Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head. The “bookwork” offers a reverse transcription of the original scroll of Kerouac’s On the Road, and thus one begins Morris’s work on the last page of Kerouac’s novel. Morris emphasizes that it is not necessary to read his conceptual work in the manner that one conventionally reads literature, because conceptual writing establishes new and “different ways of reading.” Morris argues, “Works of conceptual writing celebrate reading differently as a praxis of exploring the elsewhere of what languages and their users can mean and do.” Although I find this potential of conceptual writing rich and exciting, I pause at Morris’s use of thinkership, which perhaps through mere coincidence too strongly recalls LeWitt’s emotionally dry conceptual art of sole mental interest. I think about novels and works that are novel that seduce or entice me to explore the possibilities of language, and I remember famous formulation by Emily Dickinson.

“If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?" (Dickinson L342a)

Dickinson’s peculiar definition of poetry is preserved in an 1870 letter from Thomas Wentworth Higginson to his wife. Most interestingly for me, Dickinson defines poetry without any reference to language itself. She emphasizes that the book of poetry, the novel, the work of art, is defined not by any linguistic markers, but instead by an intense sensual experience (the profound chilling of her body) and, indeed, a violent ecstasy (the fracturing of her body by the excess of art’s sensational force), which engenders the reader’s transport. This intense action of the artwork upon the body is part of what I experience with conceptual works.

“Conceptual writing is allegorical writing. . . . Allegorical writing is a writing of its time, saying slant what cannot be said directly. . . . In this sense, the allegory is dependent on its reader for completion (though it usually has a transparent or literal surface). . . .

Note the potential for excess. Note the premise of failure, of unutterability, of exhaustion before one’s begun.

Allegorical writing is necessarily inconsistent, containing elaborations, recursions, sub-metaphors, fictive conceits, projections, and guisings that combine and recombine both to create the allegorical whole, and to discursively threaten the wholeness. . . .

All conceptual writing it allegorical writing.” (Fitterman and Place 6-9)

Some conceptualisms:

Michalis Pichler, Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hazard: Sculpture (2008)

Michael Maranda, Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hazard: Livre (2008)

Pichler and Maranda each begin their works with two reference points: the 1914 Nouvelle Revue Française (Gallimard) publication of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard: Poème and Marcel Broodthaers 1964 adaptation of this work, Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hazard: Image. Each of the works following Mallarmé appropriate the precise size, dimensions, and layout of his 1914 book, and they all make one notable change to this work: they remove Mallarmé’s language. In its place, Broodthaers offers striking black rectangles that precisely cover each of Mallarmé’s lines, Pichler cuts out each of Mallarmé’s lines and presents the reader with a “sculpture” that doubles as a musical composition (Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard: Musique), and Maranda presents in place of Mallarmé’s text cream-colored blanks that almost blend in to the printed page.

Joy Drury Cox: Old Man and Sea (2012); Or, Some of The Whale (2013); Stranger (2014)

Dan Gilsdorf: “Heart of Darkness” (2010)

derek beaulieu: Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (2007)

Cox, Gilsdorf, and beaulieu offer works that absent language from conventional literary works. Cox’s works empty her source texts (Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, four chapters from Melville's Moby Dick, and Matthew Ward’s translation of Camus’s The Stranger) of all their language aside from page headings and leave behind only punctuation. In Old Man and Sea, Cox takes an additional step and precisely draws lines between all of the periods on each page. Gilsdorf offers a similar treatment of Conrad's novella, leaving behind only punctuation marks. beaulieu removes all the language and punctuation from the pages of his genetic text (Edwin Abbott’s novel of the same name), and in its place he leaves a disturbing array of lines that trace the presence of each unique letter on the first line of a page to the first appearance of this letter on subsequent lines.

Eve Rhymer, Legendary, Lexical, Loquacious, Love (1996)

Gareth Long, Don Quixote (2006)

Simon Morris, Re-Writing Freud (2005)

Rhymer, Long, and Morris use techniques of appropriation that retain (for the most part) the language of their various source texts, but, in their works, language and the processes of communication and expression become strange if not impossible. Rhymer based her “romance for the post-structuralist woman” on a randomly selected and uncredited genre novel. She alphabetized every word in the novel and presents the reader with twenty-five chapters (there is no chapter for Q) that move from over 1600 iterations of the word a in chapter 1 to the final chapter, which contains the single word zealous. Long produced his version of Cervantes’s novel with the aid of an audiobook of the novel processed through speech recognition software. After training the software recognize the audiobook’s reading voice, Long created his new work, which at times bears little relation to the original text. Morris took the 1976 Penguin edition of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, and, with a computer program created by his partner, he randomly reconstructed the book for publication, reusing each one of Freud’s 222,704 words.

-Edwardo Rios


Fitterman, Robert, and Vanessa Place. Notes on Conceptualisms. Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling,

2009. Print.

LeWitt, Sol. “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology. Eds. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. Cambridge: MIT, 1999. 12 - 17. Print.

Markson, David. This is not a novel. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001. Print.

Morris, Simon. Interview by Darren Hudson. Aesthetics for the Birds. Aesthetics for the Birds, 24 Sep. 2014. Web.

#edwardorios #avantgarde

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