Leong on Bergvall

by on Jul.19, 2011

Michael Leong has a very thoughtful review of Caroline Bergvall’s book Meddle English up on Brooklyn Rail:

When Bergvall writes in “Middling English” about her desire to “irritate English at its epiderm,” she is also speaking of her individuated accent as a poetic irritant to the homogenizing forces of “the middling,” which is a “smoothing over, a tense flattening, an artificial erosion, a surface stiffening” of the English language. In the closing essay of the book, Bergvall calls this accented irritation “A Cat In the Throat,” which is at once a frictive wounding and a point of connection. It is an obstructing rasp that one wishes to cough up and it is also, by way of a bilingual pun, a lingual engagement with the sexuate body (une chatte, Bergvall tells us, is French slang for “a pussy”): “Cat is my speech’s subjective accent, the intonation of my verbal patterns, the stutter of my silencing, an all-round explicit accentedness. So what if I were to decide to speak with a cat in the throat?” This dangerous speaking requires “a whole process of re-embodying one’s language’s spaces.” In the spirit of Bergvall’s feline polyglotism, can we imagine a “re-embodying” of Echo, an Echo with an accented body? And how might this extend a newly codified understanding of conceptualism?

Really this is the kind of thoughtful review, I wish there was more of. Thanks, Michael.

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Josef Horáček

    What do we make of the last question? Indeed, Bergvall is featured in Dworkin & Goldsmith’s conceptualist anthology _Against Expression_ as well as Perloff’s _Unoriginal Genius_ (discussed here last month). Does her work challenge the idea of conceptualism as promoted by, say, Goldsmith? If so, how?

  2. Michael Leong

    Thanks so much for posting this, Johannes.

    Good questions, Josef: Bergvall certainly challenges Dworkin’s articulation of conceptualism and that’s a point I tried to hammer home in my review. I said: “Dworkin argues that Echo represents a sort of classical godmother for a conceptual and neo-Warholian mimesis.” This is from his introduction to AGAINST EXPRESSION: “Echo, literally, always has the last word. And she sets the first example for many of the writers included here: loquacious, patient, rule bound, recontextualizing language in a mode of strict citation. Ostensibly a passive victim of the wrath of Juno, Echo in fact becomes a model of Oulipean ingenuity.” Yet what Dworkin ignores is that Echo loses her body in return for such “ingenuity.” He quotes Ovid but doesn’t cite this crucial part:

    Her body dries and shrivels till voice only
    And bones remain, and then she is voice only
    For the bones are turned to stone.

    My point is that Bergvall doesn’t promote a “voice only” poetics and is extremely invested in the accented body.

    The Goldsmith/Dworkin anthology is really interesting in that the editorial frame clearly privileges a conceptualism of “strict citation” while it includes work like Claudia Rankine’s DON’T LET ME BE LONELY which contains much more “expression” than “strict citation.”

  3. Josef Horáček

    Michael, thanks for the response (and for your insightful review). I think the anthology bears a rather unfortunate title that belies what one can find inside. And I agree that Dworkin’s introduction, while useful in many ways (origins, contexts, connections), constricts the field of conceptual writing by promoting a particular aesthetic/(un)creative process. Goldsmith’s shorter introduction has its own problems (to say that impressionism and abstraction happened as a response to the invention of photography is a very reductivist reading of history), but it finishes on a more open-ended, non-prescriptive note.

    But to get to my point: I wonder if we could read the anthology (and conceptualism in general) not as a rejection of expression but as a rethinking of expression. Expression not as a function of the psyche of the individual genius but as a function of the (often collective or dehumanized) body. Or the function of the text (which conceptual writing treats as a sort of body).

  4. Johannes

    I think an important note here is that for all his invokations of the visual arts, Goldsmith tends to be rather text-focused. The same is definitely true of Perloff in her treatment of “conceptual poetry” in her book Unoriginal Genius (“genius” is of course a notion that in Perloff as in Goldsmith tends to reaffirm “the human,” rather than move towards what you call “the dehumanized body”). But in Bergvall (or in another British experimentalist, Chris Cheek, and in Christian Bök, and even to some extent it seems in Goldsmith) the performance is really important. As a text on the page, I find Bergvall not all that interesting. Her ideas of interlingualism – in large part because they are *about* the issues of interlingualism – tends to stabilize the mess of interlingualism/trnaslation (I encounter more complex and unstable ideas of text on a daily basis in the act of translation).

    But as a performer she’s absolutely spellbinding. I think if you read her in a less formalist, text-based way, the reading will get less rigidly academic, less easy, and messier. It will have to take into account affect (which is related to “expression”) and the body and viscerality, as well as a whole array of issues related to interlingualism and intermedia. I haven’t actually read any such essay about Bergvall, though I’m sure it exists (I know for example that Roman Huk, who’s a professor here at Notre Dame, does work on performance/poetry and she’s obsessed with Bergvall). And of course she talks about this in her own work. And once you go there, into the messy and visceral, someone like Ariana Reines, whose inclusion on a book “against expression” seems very curious to me, would not only fit in but maybe generate a more interesting discussion about performance and plagiarism etc. And in that space, the idea of “conceptual writing” would start to become more interesting to me.

    OK, I might be wrong about this because I haven’t really taken the time to read that much about conceptual writing, other than an essay here and there, but that’s how it seem to me, admittedly limited in my perspective.


  5. Johannes

    Another thought about this. In “Unoriginal Genius, Perloff quotes Fahlström’s manifesto and does a brief reference to “Birds in Sweden,” one of his sound pieces. But she makes him seem very much like a formalist, tasteful in her way, and she says he rejected surrealism. But on the whole he’s not at all that kind of artist. His big influence was Artaud and his performances are incredibly messy and flashy and always engaged with the body and visceral stimulus. His performance “KIsses Sweeter than Wine,” which is my favorite of his works, is incredibly spectacular in the sense of flashy, overwhelming, erotic (performed only with the help of Bell Electrics and Raushenberg). His game works are about putting and audience (or, more likely, himself) intot his contraption and move around various imagery. His first piece were these scrolls you have to walk around the gallery to “read.” He had a vision of an “ecstatic society” where the “art” was drugs injected into the citizen’s infantile bodies. Maybe I’ll write another piece about this in reference to Michael’s Bergvall post.


  6. adam strauss

    “ecstatic society” where the “art” was drugs injected into the citizen’s infantile bodies

    outside the body in the body—interesting

  7. Johannes

    Yes it’s an interesting but totally indefensible manifesto. However, I don’t, the way many critics, want to just throw it away; it does suggest a certain model of art.