Russian lessons for conceptual writing

Tot kto poet n s nami Prigov A-Ya 071.001.027

Dmitri Prigov, Tot kto poet ne s nami––tot protiv nas, ego unichtozhauiut [He Who Does Not Sing with Us Is against Us and Is Destroyed]. Typewritten text on paper. 29.6 x 21 cm. A-Ya Archive, Lettrist series. Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, 071.001.027. Photo by Peter Jacobs. Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Dmitri Prigov.

I’m delighted to see that Postscript: Writing after Conceptual Art, edited by Andrea Andersson, has just been published by the University of Toronto Press. I’ve contributed a chapter (available here through JSTOR) in which I attempt to give anglophone conceptual writing some Russian lessons. Here’s a brief extract from the introduction:

To recognize the diversity and historically and culturally inflected nature of conceptual writing, we would do well to take some Russian lessons. In this essay, I turn to a form of conceptual writing that developed in a radically different social, political, and historical context: the text-based works of Moscow conceptualism and in particular the writings of conceptual poet Dmitri Prigov. Emerging out of the social and political environment of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and early 1980s, Moscow conceptualism appropriated aspects of Western conceptual art, but also responded to very different institutional structures for art and contrasting understandings of the relationship between words and things. These differences can help us recognize the contextual and institutional framings that shape and are addressed by conceptual writing. Moscow conceptualism’s particular emphasis on literature and its literary conceptual practice contain lessons for how we understand the later rise of conceptual writing as a literary practice in the anglophone world. The Russian example reveals conceptual writing’s deep but still insufficiently acknowledged engagements with ideological discourse, literary and artistic institutions, and authorship.

Amongst other works, I take as an example two works from Prigov’s Stikhogrammy (Versogrammes, or Lettrist series), including Tot kto poet ne s nami – tot protiv nas, ego unichtozhaiut (He Who Does Not Sing with Us Is against Us and He Will Be Destroyed; pictured above). Here’s my take on the work:

Prigov emphasizes the promised destruction by having the capitalized phrase “ЕГО УНИЧТОЖАЮТ” (HE WILL BE DESTROYED) override the lowercase text diagonally from right to left down the page. The first part of the text, “He who does not sing with us is against us,” is an almost exact quotation from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “Gospodin, ‘narodnyi artist’” (Mister “National Artist”), an attack on the Russian émigré opera singer Feodor Chaliapin published in the Soviet newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda in 1927. Combined with the meaning and literary allusion of the first quotation, the final phrase echoes the title of Maxim Gorky’s article “Esli vrag ne sdaetsia, – ego unichtozhaiut” (If the Enemy Will Not Surrender, He Will Be Destroyed), which appeared in the newspaper Pravda in 1930 – the year of Mayakovsky’s death – and was later quoted by Stalin in a statement issued during the Second World War. Prigov here performs the unconditional surrender of the poet to the state through the transformation of the writer into a machine-like producer who sings for the state (“with us”) by retyping a prescribed text. Underscoring the connection between the poetic word (which in Mayakovsky’s poem becomes “a bomb”) and totalitarian ideology, Prigov locates the origins of Stalin’s totalitarianism in the Russian avant-garde. Prigov invokes the Russian avant-garde through the citation of Mayakovsky, the echo of his innovative stepped line, and the geometrical abstraction of the concrete poem’s shape. He connects the avant-garde to Stalinism by having the geometrical abstraction emerge through the interplay of Mayakovsky’s ominous phrase and Gorky and Stalin’s capitalized words of total destruction.

Just as he connects totalitarianism to avant-gardism, Prigov inserts official discourse into the unofficial realm of the samizdat text, which was fetishized by many in the Soviet intelligentsia. By repeating phrases on a typescript page, he links the repetitive clichés and slogans of official propaganda to the retyping required for the reproduction of samizdat texts. Prigov presents non-literary appropriated material and discourses within the institutional structures of samizdat literature. Though dependent on the cultural and historical specificities of samizdat, Prigov’s literary framing of non-literary texts anticipates anglophone conceptual writing such as Kenneth Goldsmith’s Sports, Traffic, and The Weather, Rob Fitterman’s Metropolis series, Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts, or even Bruce Andrews’s less strictly ordered appropriation of media and political discourses in precursor works like Give Em Enough Rope. Like Komar and Melamid’s verbatim reproduction of slogans, Prigov’s approach also presages Vanessa Place’s emphasis on repeating “the discourse of the master.” More humorously and perhaps even more mercilessly than Place, Prigov alerts us to the implicated relation of conceptual writing and the avant-garde as a whole to discourses of power.

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The Elephant in the Room: Literary Theory in World Literature

крылов слон любопытный

V. A Favorskii’s illustration to I. A. Krylov’s fable “Liubopytnyi” (“The Inquisitive Man”)

My article “The Elephant in the Room: Literary Theory in World Literature” has just been published online here. It will appear soon in print as part of a special issue of Orbis Litterarum entitled “Literary Studies across Cultures: A Chinese-European Dialogue,” edited by Svend Erik Larsen and Cao Shunqin. In my essay, I have some fun spotting elephants while exploring one problem with current theories of world literature: they pay too little attention to how literary theory shapes literary practice. I illustrate theory’s crucial role in world literature through the work of two influential contemporary poet–translators: Chinese poet Bei Dao’s 北島 use of Russian Formalist theory; and Anglo‐Canadian digital poet John Cayley’s deployment of aesthetic theory derived from Huayan 華嚴 Buddhism.

Here’s an extract from the introduction:

We often think about the challenge of translating literature in terms of form and content. Should one attempt to preserve the semantic content of, say, a Chinese poem in English translation, or should one attempt to replicate such formal devices as rhyme, rhythm, and wordplay? This form‐content way of thinking also inflects discussions of literature on a global scale. Franco Moretti has influentially argued that the story of modern literature is largely one of foreign, primarily European forms, such as the novel, inflected by local content, be it Chinese or West African. Jahan Ramazani likewise depends on the form‐content binary in his four‐part taxonomy of the various possible permutations of the foreign and the local in contemporary poetry: foreign form and local content, foreign form and foreign content, local form and foreign content, and local form and local content (Ramazani, 2016, 122). Ramazani’s taxonomy is finer‐grained than Moretti’s, though, as he admits, even this variegated account of “local‐global enmeshments” in contemporary poetry has its limitations, since “most poems will fit into several of these slots at once, and no amount of long‐distance squinting can accurately reduce them to one or the other” (p. 123).

Like Krylov’s inquisitive man, instead of squinting harder at our existing conceptual objects, we need to step back and recognize the elephant in the room of world literature. Moretti’s, Ramazani’s, and many other accounts of global modernism and world literature neglect a third critical term that profoundly shapes how writers and their translators conceive of and negotiate between form and content: literary theory. The main problem with both Moretti’s and Ramazani’s accounts is not that they fail to capture the complex negotiations between form and content, and between the foreign and the local, but that both their schemas ignore this crucial third term in cross‐cultural literary exchange and globalization.

And here’s the essay’s conclusion:

When it was proposed that Vladimir Nabokov be appointed to the faculty of Harvard University, Roman Jakobson quipped, “are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?” (quoted in Boyd, 1991, 303). In fact, it is the persistence of this way of thinking that has contributed to theory’s position as the elephant in the room of current accounts of literature on a global scale.

The history of literary theory belies a clear distinction between theorist and practitioner. Theories of literature respond to literary practices, and those theories can in turn spur new directions in verbal art. The Russian avant‐garde, for instance, inspired the theories of Jakobson and of his Russian Formalist colleague Shklovsky, whose experiments in prose fiction in turn exemplify many of the literary devices that his theory describes. In Third Factory, for example, Shklovsky deploys the device of estrangement in describing his son’s first impression of a horse: “he thought it was doing four legs and a long nose just for fun” (Shklovsky, 1926, 13). And yet amidst the conflicts between creative writing and literary theory that continue to plague the study of literature today, it is easy to lose sight of the mutually enabling role of literary theory and practice, even if, like Jakobson, your work emerges through their intermingling.

As the examples of Bei Dao and Cayley illustrate, we need to overcome this divide if we are to recognize the role of poetic theory in the translation and adaptation of literary practices across geographic and linguistic borders. We ought not to be able to write a history of modern and contemporary poetry in Chinese or English—let alone a history of global modernism and world literature—without recognizing theory’s role in shaping both how writers translate the form and content of poetic texts into new languages, cultures, and media, and how they question what we mean by form, content, medium, translation, and comparison in the first place. It’s time, in other words, to make room for elephants.


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The Frightening Translatability of Censorship

the_china quarterlyI’ve just published a brief essay on censorship inside and outside China on the Critical Inquiry blog, “In the Moment.” Poetry and Translation in Times of Censorship; or, What Cambridge University Press and the Chinese Government Have in Common reflects on the experience of having my words translated and edited for publication in China and in the Cambridge University Press journal The China Quarterly, which was earlier this year mired in controversy for bowing to Chinese government censorship.

The essay concludes:

It is easy to become worn down or even blind (as I was) to the many silent and insidious operations of censorship in the world today. Perhaps the one advantage of engaging directly with overt censorship in China is that it can make one aware of the broader workings of censorship and self-censorship that operate in contemporary culture. These lessons are, like censorship itself, eminently—and frighteningly—translatable.

You can read the full essay here.

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The Indiscipline of Comparison


Doppelmayr, Atlas coelestis, “Astronomia comparativa,” 1. An image from Haun Saussy’s contribution to the exchange with David Damrosch in the special issue.

I’m delighted to announce the publication of “The Indiscipline of Comparison,” a special issue of Comparative Literature Studies. Many thanks to the contributors, David Damrosch, Rita Felski, Haun Saussy, Shu-mei Shih, Karen Thornber, and Zhang Longxi. My heartfelt thanks also go out to CLS editor, Thomas Beebee, and to editorial assistant Kendra McDuffie. Thanks also to the University of Otago’s Asian Migrations and Comparative and Cross Cultural Studies Research Themes and the Humanities Division’s De Carle Lectureship whose generous support brought several of the contributors  to Dunedin.

Here’s a brief extract from my introduction:

Are we similarly entering an age of post-discipline comparison? Or at least, would it be fruitful to think of comparative work as having no discipline but the singular set of rules and constraints that constitute the work and that define its relation to a range of disciplines? The articles here collectively make the argument for the work of comparison not as a single discipline but as a discursive strategy for engaging and rethinking disciplinary relations. The key test for such work would be not just whether it changes the rules of the game within a discipline but whether it alters the relationship between disciplines, surprising us into a new way of seeing the world.

You can view the issue on Project Muse here or on Jstor here.

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The Uses of Postmodernism


Plywood mural covering earthquake-damaged building, by Michael Hewson (Christchurch, New Zealand).

Postmodernism might seem dreadfully passé, but my new essay and the special issue of which it is a part argue that it still has its uses. My article on “The Uses of Postmodernism” is online here, and below I reproduce its conclusion. In his eloquent summary of the special issue, Brian McHale questions my emphasis on “the disparities among different national postmodernisms.” (I discuss Chinese, US, Russian, and New Zealand postmodernism.) For McHale, despite their differences, all these postmodernisms share a “space-clearing gesture” in their respective contexts. However, rather than expressing “discontent with the malleability of period concepts” or “national disparities,” I have aimed in my essay to show how the disparities and temporal and spatial hierarchies in the uses of postmodernism reflect not so much a space-clearing as a space-contesting gesture, specifically the contestation of local, national, and global space.

We might date the death of postmodernism as a term that is used, rather than merely mentioned, in literary studies in English to around the year 2000. Its demise is marked, for instance, by the publication of Susan Stanford Friedman’s “Definitional Excursions: The Meanings of Modern/Modernity/Modernism” in 2001 and Marjorie Perloff’s 21st-Century Modernism the following year. Both Friedman and Perloff articulate and contribute to the turn away from postmodernism in the Anglo-American academy and both do so through an expanded account of modernism. Friedman and Perloff argue that modernism encompasses everything supposedly associated with postmodernism, including the “embrace of chaos…the crisis of representation, fragmentation, alienation…indeterminacy, the rupture of certainty – material and symbolic” (Friedman, “Definitional Excursions” 494). A few years later, in attempting to make the case for the term’s ongoing usefulness, Brian McHale would nevertheless accept this understanding of postmodernism – already present in Hassan’s and Antin’s essays from the early 1970s – as merely another form of modernism: “ ‘postmodernism’ signifies the full range of possibilities…available before a normalizing modernism had made its choices, and which became available again after normalized modernism had run its course” (x).

As the titles of these works by Friedman and Perloff suggest, the decline of interest in the postmodern in the early 2000s was matched by the rise of what Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz dubbed the “new modernist studies.” The new modernist studies offered an expanded sense of modernism that appeared to render postmodernism irrelevant. Why do we need postmodernism when we can just as easily call it twenty-first-century modernism, as Perloff asked over a decade ago?

My proposal to reexamine the uses of postmodernism in literature and literary studies draws on the kind of historicizing and comparative work that has made modernist studies such a dynamic field over the past couple of decades. These historicizing and comparative approaches suggest that postmodernism deserves a place in any literary and cultural history of the last seventy years.

Seen historically and comparatively, postmodernism is the sum of its uses or misuses. One might argue that these uses bear an underlying common conceptual form – a wave that is diffracted as the concept passes through different places and cultural conditions at different times and is inflected by local contexts. But this would be to accept too easily the constraining habits of periodization: the center-periphery model of originality and belatedness through which postmodernism itself was frequently imagined. Amongst other things, such a model posits the existence of a relatively stable wave of meaning that undergoes change as it passes through various cultural contexts. When we consider the widely various uses of postmodernism even in the small sampling surveyed here, no such stability exists.

Nevertheless, some common threads emerge in the uses of postmodernism. First and most obviously, postmodernism was used to attack diverse versions of modernism. Second, postmodernism was used negatively as a proxy term for globalization. Third and somewhat contradictorily, postmodernism was used positively as a term to mark a work’s, a country’s, or, and especially, a theorist’s up-to-date position vis-à-vis the global literary and cultural marketplace. Postmodernism was a term through which one could assert theoretical sophistication in the period of literary theory’s ascendance and the up-to-date-ness of the literary culture of an individual or country.

These contrary uses – along with postmodernism’s association with anti-universalism – enabled the term to embody both sides in the unfolding tension between globalization and localism. Postmodernism could be used to claim an advanced position in the global cultural field and to dismiss nationalisms and other localisms as hopelessly theoretically naive or outdated. Yet it could also be deployed to assert cultural relativism and so the singularity of a national or local culture.

The story of postmodernism’s uses describes no coherent theory or period but rather illuminates the struggle to come to grips with changes both local and global in the final decades of the twentieth century. While postmodernism might indeed be useless as a theoretical concept or periodization, it remains a key term in the history of twentieth-century thought.

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The Copy in Global Modernism

new-vocab-for-global-modernismIs “make it the same”––and not “make it new”––the true catchphrase of modernism? So I argue in my contribution to A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, just out from Columbia University Press. Although I’m still awaiting a hardcopy, I’ve been able to preview the rich offerings that Eric Hayot and Rebecca Walkowitz have assembled through JSTOR. Below are some edited extracts from the introduction to my essay on the “Copy”:

“Make it new.” The original, the foreign, the idiolectic—modernism has been told as a story of novelty, strangeness, and singular genius. And this story has been given new inflection as scholars have sought to emphasize the variety and global reach of modernisms in the plural. Yet “make it the same” might equally serve as the catchphrase of modernism. Modernism emerged out of a vast increase in copying, to which it responded through repetition, appropriation, and remixing, from Eisenstein’s montage, Duchamp’s ready-mades, Stein’s repetitions as insistences, Picasso’s and Braque’s collage, Joyce’s pastiche, Melville’s Bartleby, Borges’s Menard, and Burroughs’s and Gysin’s cut-ups to Xu Zhimo’s translations and versioning, Gandhi’s printing press, Sergei Tretyakov’s newspaper as twentieth-century epic, and Kamau Brathwaite’s audio and computer-graphic remediation and self-rewriting. Even the slogan status of Pound’s phrase “make it new” is the product of later critical appropriations, and the phrase itself is a translation, a copy of a centuries-old text that was probably mistranscribed from a far more ancient source. The copy’s centrality to modernism is increasingly legible in the early twenty-first century, when reproduction triumphs over production in the billions of everyday acts through which we produce and consume links and likes on Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, and other social media.

Modernism has often been seen as a site of resistance to the emergence of the copy as a cultural dominant. The emphasis in Anglo-American modernism on making it new has been influentially read as deriving from the need “to produce something which resists and breaks through the force of gravity of repetition as a universal feature of commodity equivalence.” Yet by attending to modernist works that radically foreground copying and by recognizing similarly repetitive structures even in works that seek to resist sameness through strangeness, we can complicate the opposition between mass reproduction, consumer capitalism, and globalization, on the one hand, and modernist aestheticism, on the other. The copy thereby provides a way to negotiate the ongoing rift between readings of modernism—and between parts of modernist practice—that emphasize sociological, technological, political, and economic context and those that stress the particularity and singular genius of modernist works.

The copy—more than its apparent cousins, influence, imitation, mimesis, adaptation, and translation—also offers a means to question global modernism’s temporal and spatial hierarchies these terms, to write of non-Western, peripheral, or global modernism is to articulate this mimetic desire “to speak in the other’s language in order to be recognized by the other” that is the West. Within the “make it new” rhetoric of modernism, mimetic desire “imposes a historical lag between the other’s behavior and one’s own. To be caught up in mimetic desire requires one invariably to be ‘behind the times.’” The copy, by contrast, does not “privilege being temporally ‘first.’” Hence the “strategy of re-writing” not only attempts, as in some avant-garde practice, “to short-circuit or interrupt the text’s own representational construction”; it also undoes the structure of mimetic desire that shapes the way we think modernism transnationally. Just as the “anti-theatrical” theater of Brecht and other modernists was a means of “keeping under control and mediating the theatrical mimesis,” so copy works to denaturalize the framework of originality, innovation, and mimetic desire in approaches to global modernism.

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Lucas Klein on A Common Strangeness and Cosima Bruno’s Between the Lines

I am delighted to see that Lucas Klein’s review essay, “Addressed and Redressed: World Literature and Reading Contemporary Poetry in Translation,” has just been published in Comparative Literature Studies. Klein’s essay discusses A Common Strangeness alongside Cosima Bruno’s wonderfully insightful book Between the Lines: Yang Lian’s Poetry through Translation, which I have previously mentioned on this blog. Klein’s review begins:

Civilizationally and politically otherized from the point of view of the West, yet never colonized except incompletely and piecemeal, China occupies a privileged position in current discussions of world literature, standing as a test case for many of our notions of the category. Meanwhile, translation—upon which, of course, world literature, however defined, builds itself—has been undervalued and under-attended to in our current discussion of the Weltliteratur predicament. These are, in fact, related problematics: in Between the Lines, Cosima Bruno quotes a scholar devaluing translation to the effect that “poetry has traditionally been built of words with a particular history of usage in a single language—of words that cannot be exchanged for other words” (2), which scholar at the same time posits Chinese literature, as Jacob Edmond discusses in A Common Strangeness, as a case of national literature par excellence failing to withstand the onslaught of globalization and the “end of history” after the Cold War (95–124). The brilliance of the books under review here is how they address and redress both issues, showing how translation can not only ease the tension between Chinese and world literature, but also build a world literature with room for Chinese literature.

You can read the rest of the essay here (requires a subscription to Project Muse).

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