The Technical Composition of Conceptualism

Image: John Baldessari, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, 1971

We begin at the end, with the final sentence of Christian Bök’s ‘The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed: Notes Toward a Potential Robopoetics’: a fascinating series of pensées regarding the writing machine RACTER, ‘an automated algorithm, whose output confounds the metaphysics of authorship, refuting the privileged uniqueness of poetic genius.’:[1]

If we want to commit an act of poetic innovation in an era of formal exhaustion, we may have to consider this heretofore unimagined, but nevertheless prohibited, option: writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it.[2]

Writing machines, reading machines. The essay is seminal in the theorisation of contemporary or neo-conceptualism, so we begin at the end of the beginning.

As you will have suspected already, ends and beginnings are a chief concern herein. All of our best periodising hypotheses, Giovanni Arrighi foremost among them, tell us that the United States-centered era of late or finance capitalism should have ended, or be in its death throes, 2008 being the terminal to 1973’s signal crisis, with a new hegemon or something else entirely in the offing.[3] And yet, to this point, persistence and restoration call the tune against the quavering threnody of intensified and broadened immiseration. This immiseration should be in no context diminished. That said, the persistence and restoration of an era that by all rights should be in the boneyard offers a bizarre and eerie phenomenon, hence all the zombies.

Thinkers of durée long and otherwise might reasonably understand the last four decades as ‘the long crisis’; there was never any real recovery behind the appearance of nominal growth in the FIRE sector, behind the stock exchanges, behind the series of bubbles that have papered over the ongoing crackup of industrial profitability with no small amount of fictitious capital, ‘claims on future value’ never to be realised. Proceeding unevenly as it must, the long crisis has been marked by the ongoing production of non-production, a forcing house for surplus capacity and surplus populations which together provide a unity for the political economy of the post-industrial core in this period.

At the same time, the rises and falls within that grave descent make visible certain imperfect repetitions which we ought to take seriously. I want to consider a cultural synecdoche for this persistence and restoration: conceptual poetry.

I should aver immediately that there are multiple strands of conceptualism often in significant tension. I refer in main to the brand of conceptualism that has done the best job of arrogating the name to its own sensibilities in the institutional spaces of museums, status journals, television shows, and white houses. I am going to assume this sort of conceptualism doesn’t need much glossing, just as in Kenneth Goldsmith’s gloss it doesn’t need much reading. Summarising numerous previous arguments in a 2011 interview with, he insists,

The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them. Here’s every word I spoke for a week. Here’s a year’s worth of weather reports … and without ever having to read these things, you understand them.

So, in a weird way, if you get the concept—which should be put out in front of the book—then you get the book, and you don’t even have to read it. They’re better to talk about than they are to read. It’s not about inventing anything new; it’s about finding things that exist and reframing them and representing them as original texts. The choice of what you’re presenting is more interesting than the thing that you’re presenting. You’re not evaluated on the writing or what’s on the page; you’re evaluated on the thought process that comes before ‘pen is set to paper,’ so to speak.

In 1959, Brian Gysin said that writing was 50 years behind painting. And it still is. So if conceptual art happened 50 years ago, we’re just beginning to get around to it now.[4]

The broadly accepted genealogy, variously informing the authoritative accounts of, e.g., Marjorie Perloff, Vanessa Place, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Craig Dworkin, gives conceptual poetry a doubled lineage. Within anglophone poetry, it takes the baton-pass of the avant-garde from language writing (née Language Poetry), doubling down on an anti-lyrical formalism with considerable theoretical armature motivated by a critical stance toward the spontaneous ideology of the sentimental-expressivist ‘mainstream’, conceptual poetry’s self-selected other. At the same time, conceptual poetry is rooted saliently in the soil of conceptual art.

This double genealogy underscores the temporalities of our untimely moment. Persistence and restoration may not offer a proper dialectic, but this ‘persistence of the avant-garde, restoration of conceptualism’ does offer a reversal or two. For poetry’s allegedly most avant proffer, conceptual poetry’s tenets and provocations must strike us as peculiary arriere: attacks on originality, creativity, authorship, on romantic paradigms of inspiration, the lyric I; inquiries into what art really is and its purported relationship to the ontology of the human. The litany will be familiar, closely replicating a certain intellectual portfolio of the previous century. As many have wondered, didn’t a couple of French types creep into the artists’ garret and put the poignard to the romantic genius some time back — ’67, ’68? After the first death there is no author. Even skeptical critics have often accepted the terms of the debate, defending affect, expressivity, originality, intention and so forth against the alleged depredations of neo-conceptualism; this in turn allows for ever-cleverer claims that conceptual poetry is in fact laced with affect, invention et cetera if we just read it right. Herein, I’m interested in a different question entirely. If the self-declared aesthetic inquiries of neo-conceptualism were interesting a few decades ago, why would they be particularly interesting in the oughts? Not just art for art’s sake, but art about art’s sake. In what sense, if any, are such dated and profoundly self-reflexive concerns entangled with the history of the present?

To engage this puzzle, we must first note that these concerns are not ‘dated’ in some vague sense but precisely so; the specific periodicity here proves hard to look away from. The date of the Barthes’ and Foucault’s essays are only an initial sounding. Despite the occasional brandishing of Lautreamont or Duchamp, neo-conceptual poetry’s programme, its vocabulary, and the referents proliferated by the house organs are resolutely those of the ’60s. The Oulipians oft-cited ‘The Litpot: The First Manifesto’ (François le Lionnais, 1962) brackets the early side:

That which certain writers have introduced with talent (even with genius) in their work…(Oulipo) intends to do systematically and scientifically, if need be through recourse to machines that process information.[5]

Multiple citations cluster around 1969; the most suggestive (and most repeated) is Douglas Huebler’s ‘The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’

This disavowal falls at the pivot of the sequence that Lucy Lippard aggregates under the heading Six Years: Dematerialization of the Art Object 1966-1972 — a period after which conceptualism begins to fade and give way to other aesthetic developments.[6] Come the millennium, Kenneth Goldsmith will rehearse Huebler’s sentiment so many times it is hard not to take it as a sort of key — though he is in the habit of changing one word, objects to texts. On this metamorphosis hangs a tale. But I am getting ahead of myself.

In ‘Conceptualisms, Old and New’ (2007), Perloff — having summarized ’60s’ conceptualism (including Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer’s text-based journal 0 to 9), ponders the neo-conceptual restoration and offers a pocket periodisation.

Why the new interest in the material word, in proceduralism, dictionary definition, and a dogged literalism that refuses the metaphoric mode of mainstream lyric…? One reason, surely, is the current nostalgia for the Bohemia of the late 60s-early 70s, for the moment when poets and visual artists were still likely to live in Village walk-ups and Brooklyn tenements, defying, not only of the bourgeois world of business, but also the university.[7]

Perloff gets something deeply right here, despite her focus on institutions and particularly on artist’s stances toward them. Her list of ‘material word, proceduralism, dictionary definition, and a dogged literalism’, while it declines to abstract from language-work to show its connection to studio art practice, is clear enough about the technics for avoiding the humanist whirlpool of precious expressivist subjectivity, for overcoming the lures of culturalist allusivity and egocentric depth psychology. Bök, in the aforementioned essay, had provided the coordinating rationale for technical composition, proclaiming that the artist will need ‘a machinic attitude, placing the mind on autopilot in order to follow a remote-controlled navigation-system of mechanical procedures.’[8] With that in mind, we can now suggest the following trio of crucial concerns for neo-conceptualism:

– one, a rejection of art as a form of virtuosity that indexes a necessarily human potentiality —here we recall Virno’s assertion that ‘every utterance is a virtuosic performance’, and that said virtuosity features ‘the absence of a “finished product.”’[9]

– two, an anxiety about the excessive production of objects in the present age, per Huebler; These two aspects run together into…

– three, the dream of a machinic virtuosity which eschews both finished products and humanist metaphysics, and the consequent proposition that this automation of art and especially language art, with its de-hierarchising of human and machine, might provide for a thoroughgoing reconsideration of both art and the human, while being adequate to the reality of technological development.

Having set these forth, we must now confront at least some of the contradictions in the results of the immediate production process. Conceptual writing does produce finished products, quite regularly and emphatically, from perfect-bound volumes of cheerfully plagiarised text to Goldsmith’s idea for ‘Printing the [Entire] Internet.’ There is more interesting here than mere irony. Human labour in the production of conceptual poetry remains as a ghostly presence — the sense that somebody put in the hours of drudgery transferring the words from here to there like Milo moving grains of sand with tweezers in The Phantom Tollbooth.[10] The book then retains a kind of pathos, a queer outcome of empty office labours with which many of us are all too familiar.

But if the bespoke physical reproduction of pre-existent language so familiar to neo-conceptualism seems contrary to the dream of dematerialisation, it nonetheless insists on the making-machinic of human aesthetic production. The lived labour seemingly congealed in the made text can and will be evacuated. Indeed, this process is fully in flight, per Bök’s machine dreams; such human expenditures exist largely as spectral residue in the audience’s imaginations. One can see that Goldmith’s jargon of inauthenticity, his lauding of the ‘uncreative’ and the ‘dumb’ and so forth, provide transitional terms for such a historical trajectory, allowing for the outcome that, if this be art — a new poetry of unoriginal genius — it’s an art-process that can easily be automated. Is not one lesson of the present that cognitive tasks once thought beyond mechanisation are in fact entirely amenable to such progress? Consider Place’s Statement of Facts, about which Perloff writes,

Vanessa Place, herself an appellate criminal defense attorney who specialises in sex offenders and sexually violent predators, has assembled a remarkable sequence of narratives, taken almost verbatim from court testimonies she herself reviewed.[11]

We might conjure the laborious effort underlying such appropriation art, and the highly-trained professional job that provides its enabling condition. But this must be considered in light of the parallel development detailed by McKinsey Global Institute in ‘Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy’ (May 2013):

Fields such as law and financial services are already beginning to see the benefits of knowledge worker automation. Law firms, for example, are using computers that can scan thousands of legal briefs and precedents to assist in pretrial research—work that would once have taken hundreds or thousands of hours of paralegal labor.[12]

Or, as a New York Times headline had condensed matters two years earlier, ‘Armies of expensive lawyers, replaced by cheaper software.’[13] Even if you are an artist-attorney, machines will take your place. Voila: machine virtuosity.

These coordinates do not claim to exhaust conceptualism’s concerns (and let me aver one last time that I am focusing on brand-name conceptualism). But they efficiently particularise and schematise the broader issues of originality, authorship, ontologies of art, etc — and these recur with great regularity. Bök is significant for his bravura consolidation; ‘The Piecemeal Bard’ is not just fantasia-as-theorisation, but provides a rhetorically appealing formulary or even manifesto. Here is the concluding paragraph in full.

We are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write literature for a machinic audience of artificially intellectual peers. Is it not already evident by our presence at conferences on digital poetics that the poets of tomorrow are likely to resemble programmers, exalted, not because they can write great poems, but because they can build a small drone out of words to write great poems for us? If poetry already lacks any meaningful readership among our own anthropoid population, what have we to lose by writing poetry for a robotic culture that must inevitably succeed our own? If we want to commit an act of poetic innovation in an era of formal exhaustion, we may have to consider this heretofore unimagined, but nevertheless prohibited, option: writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it.[14]

An uncharitable sort might moralise about the rather unfortunate celebration of the drone. Of more immediate interest is the gesture toward periodisation. It’s a bit incoherent: the sudden suggestion that the impetus for this aesthetic innovation is ‘formal exhaustion’ stands in tension with multiple claims for technological innovation as itself the beat with which we must keep pace.

Rather than resolving this tension directly, one might suggest that this incoherence signals the possibility of another periodisation to be found beneath the technophoria, itself veritably rapturous in its vision of a human race relieved by robots not only from producing but consuming — a periodisation in which neither the anxiety over thwarted innovation nor the hurry of technological progress functions as cause for these poetic and more broadly social developments. Instead, this pairing might be understood together as complementary consequences of an underlying dynamic. Bök comes perilously close to naming it.

Why hire a poet to write a poem when the poem can in fact write itself? Has not the poet already become a virtually vestigial, if not defective, component in the relay of aesthetic discourse? Are we not already predisposed to extract this vacuum tube from its motherboard in order to replace it with a much faster node?[15]

Indeed, only one word’s worth of mystification remains. Whence this predisposition to replace humans with machines, and speed up the production process?

Bok’s essay was published in a founding collection of neo-conceptualist position papers, the 2001 number of Object, edited by Goldsmith. Perhaps it was drafted in late 2000, at the orgiastic perihelion of the tech bubble; this is of little matter against the larger pattern. We might now schematise the various dates for the clarity this provides, starting with the dates of conceptualism on which neo-conceptualism is fixated.

We can now see that conceptualism is an art of economic expansion, isomorphic with the final years of the postwar boom, les trente glorieuses, the greatest expansion of capital in world history. Perloff’s ‘current nostalgia for … the late 60s-early 70s’ is surely correct, but that nostalgia may be less about Bohemia and more about profit rates, so historically high at that moment. But this current reformation is less a nostalgia for what is irreparably lost than a nostalgia for what has been regained, but regained imperfectly. The return in the oughts registers the coincidence of the two moments — for the profit rate recovers in the span within which neo-conceptualism rises.

But not all the way. The two conceptualisms are, we must finally concede, both languages of the boom. But there is a difference in the two moments, a difference between the long post-war boom which made a home for conceptualism, and the FIRE sector bubbles encompassing neo-conceptualism. One expansion did indeed proliferate objects; the other, objectless services, data management, and purportedly value-productive discourse. Virno, once more:

The crucial point is, though, that while the material production of objects is delegated to an automated system of machines, the services rendered by living labour, instead, resemble linguistic-virtuosic services more and more.[16]

If conceptualism tracked the hyperproduction of material objects, neoconceptualism tracks the hyperproduction of services, immaterial goods, finance. Hence the necessity of the transformation from Huebler’s objects to Goldsmith’s texts; each in turn corresponds to the niceties of its own period’s privileged mode of rising productivity. And it is rising productivity about which they cannot stop conceptualising. Faster machines making more stuff without need for humans nor human needs, and the problems that arise.

One last turn, thusly. Conceptualism is not merely the aesthetics of boom, of productivities regnant. It is, unmistakably, a language of twilight, of expansion lurching toward its limit. Let us make the impossibly obvious move of adding the two great crises.

Now we see the plainest fact: conceptualism is a crisis bird. Rising productivity is a name for the rising technical composition of capital (TCC); the increasing ratio of means of production against labour power. In value terms, it is the way through which constant comes to stand over variable capital, the rising organic composition of capital (OCC) which manifests as the expulsion of living labour from waged work, and which finally must drive profit back downward. This is capital’s ‘moving contradiction’:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary.[17]

Such is the history of motherboards and faster nodes, the inner drive to speed up every process. Well, predispositions have to come from somewhere. This illuminates conceptualism’s limitless drive toward machinic production, and its terror of too much stuff; if rising OCC was an aesthetic, it would be conceptualism.

But for conceptualism this isn’t a problem. Just as conceptual poetry believes in the promise of service work, believes in the idea that there is something generative in the aesthetics of data entry, it believes in the promise of non-work. In the neo-conceptual imaginary, this machine virtuosity of both production and consumption (for that too becomes virtuoso) simply frees humans to do…what? To overcome the lyric I? To discover new potentialities of the human, or reflect on the wonders of the automated singularity? To be boring? Well, to be unemployed, if we want to get all technical. Or organic. The thing that conceptualism knows but cannot say, that drives its own internal contradictions and its dream resolution of abstractly freed human potential, is the awareness — so evident in the Huebler/Goldsmith formula — that the overaccumulation of stuff, finally of capital itself, will bring an end to the era which at once launched the ship of conceptualism, and provisioned its imaginary. It arises always in the moment when increasing automation, ever-faster production, has reached the inflection point and now lurches toward the blowout.

Persistence and restoration: neo-conceptualism is a bit of both, restoration of the Long Boom’s twilight, persistence of those propositions even after the crisis that exposes their poverty. This persistence reminds us that periodisations are never themselves exact, and that aesthetic movements never meet their moments perfectly. Service work has not suddenly vanished; one might expect neo-conceptualism to stumble forward a bit longer. What happens then, once these propositions have broken on the shoals of crisis, contraction, unemployment — now so much flotsam in the Sargasso of overaccumulation? If the last global blowout is to provide a cue, we can expect the present’s version of the poetry of new social movements. Not an eternal return, but not without history. This will be the meaningful other of conceptualism: not the ahistorical figure of ‘the mainstream’ but a poetics of reanimated social antagonism, cognisant of immiseration and wagelessness and capital’s latest, oldest snares — and ready to name them as a problem, not conceal them behind the latest phantasmatically objective vacuum tube.

Joshua Clover has collaborated on poetry, critical writing, and conferences with Chris Nealon, Chris Chen, Aaron Benanav, Annie McClanahan, Louis Schwartz, Jasper Bernes, and Juliana Spahr; with the lattermost two, he edits Commune Editions. His next book of poetry, Red Epic, is forthcoming from Commune Editions in 2015; Of Riot, on the return of the riot to the centre of struggle, will be published by Verso in 2016. Twitter: @bookofriot


[1] Bök, Christian. ‘The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed: Notes toward a Potential Robopoetics.’ Object 10, no. Special Issue (2001), pp.10-18.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Arrighi, Giovanni. The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origin of Our Times. 2nd ed. London: Verso, 2010.

[4] ‘“Against Expression”: Kenneth Goldsmith in Conversation’,,

[5] le Lionnais, François. ‘The Litpot: The First Manifesto’, 1962. Originally titled ‘La LiPo: Le premier manifeste’, trans. Mary Ann Caws from ‘La Littérature Potentielle’ in La Bibliothèque Oulipienne, Paris: Gallimard 1973, pp.19-22.

[6] Lippard, Lucy R. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

[7] Perloff, Marjorie, ‘Conceptualisms Old and New’, Electronic Poetry Center, 2007,…

[8] Bök, Christian, op. cit.

[9] Virno, Paulo. A Grammar of the Multitude: For An Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, Fwd. Sylvere Lotringer, Trans. Isabella Bertoletti et al, NY, NY: MIT Press, 2004.

[10] Juster, Norton. The Phantom Tollbooth. Jules Feiffer, illustrator. New York: Bullseye Books, 1988.

[11] Place, Vanessa. Tragodia 1: Statement of Facts. Los Angeles: Insert Blanc Press 2011.

[12] James Manyika, Michael Chui, Jacques Bughin, Richard Dobbs, Peter Bisson, Alex Marrs. ‘Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy’, McKinsey Global Institute (May 2013),…

[13] Markoff, John, ‘Armies of expensive lawyers, replaced by cheaper software’, The New York Times, March 4, 2011.

[14] Bök, Christian, op. cit.

[15] Bök, Christian, op. cit.

[16] Virno, Paulo, op. cit.

[17] Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Martin Nicolaus. London: Penguin, 1993.


Aesthetic Education Expanded is a series of 12 articles commissioned by Mute and published in collaboration with, Kontrapunkt, Multimedia Institute, and Berliner Gazette. It is funded by the European Commission. A central site with all contributions to the project can be found here:

The series looks at the contemporary afterlife of the project of ‘aesthetic education’ initiated in the 19th century, from the violent imperatives of training and ‘lifelong learning’ imposed by capitalism in crisis to informal projects of resistance against neoliberal pedagogy and authoritarian repression.

Expanding the scope of the aesthetic in the tradition of Karl Marx to include everything from anti-austerity riots and poetry to alternative and self-instituted knowledge dissemination, the series encompasses artistic, theoretical and empirical investigations into the current state of mankind’s bad education.

Aesthetic Education Expanded attempts to open up an understanding of what is being done within and against capital’s massive assault on thought and action, whether in reading groups or on the streets of a world torn between self-cannibalisation and revolt.