"Swallowed Repulsion": Johan Jönson's Soiled Conceptualism

by on Aug.08, 2013

While offering a more nuanced perceptive affect in poetry, Cal Bedient’s recent critique of Conceptual Poetry ultimately seems to fall into a trap set up by the Conceptual rhetoric: that the difference between conceptual poetry and non-conceptual poetry is the difference between “thinking” and “reading,” between the head and the heart. Not only is this –as many people, including pro-conceptual types, pointed out in responses to Bedient’s essay – a false dichotomy, but it also prevents Bedient from putting enough pressure on the word “affect,” a term that has become a convenient catch-all word for various academic discussions. But this criticism is also a bit misplaced because it’s a binary that Conceptualism itself set up: thinkership as the opposite of readership. To read is to be stupid: overwhelmed, absorbed. To “think” is to be clean. You don’t even need to read our texts, says Kenny Goldsmith.

Instead of writing about the very academically accepted and promoted regulars among Conceptual poets, I’d rather talk about one of my favorite poets, the Swedish conceptual poet Johan Jönson, who is not only more extreme in his production than any of the American poets I’ve ever read (or thinked about) but who also really pushes me to consider “affect” very seriously, and very affectedly. Unlike Kenny Goldsmith’s hygienic thinkership model of reading, Swedish conceptual writer Johan Jönson’s work follows James Pate’s words from the other day: “because they are books of action and event, they don’t allow us lounge about on a clean, conceptual hillside, above the muck and dirt and sweat. They plunge us into it.” Jönson’s poetry is often an attack on capitalism, but one that cannot maintain the distanced stance of critique so often advocated by American experimental poetry. The poetry generates a violent ambience that explodes with capitalist urges and fears. Instead of the cool thinkership of American conceptualism, Jönson pulls the reader into an intensive zone where affect violently pulls in self and other, fantasy and reality, masculinity and masquerade.

how can i describe the shame
over my repeated poverty?

it’s hard. Maybe.
it’s possible to compare it to the repulsion.
that follows
one’s own body. that
which has become the swallowed repulsion.

(from med.bort.in)

For me Jönson’s poetry exists in that zone of “swallowed repulsion” – you have to get rid of it but you can’t. There is no epiphany, no transcendence, no critique, just a violent impossibility. But as readers we cannot make it into an easy cliff-notes “concept,” we have to plow through 1243 pages of med.bort.in; we have to try to spit out the poems but we can’t. Unlike Goldsmith’s books you don’t have to read [supposedly, I actually find them a quite vivid reading experience], Jönson gives us:

An author who cannot read his own text.

A book that cannot be reduced.

A book that has become the day, the days’ days.


This book’s devouring.


Jönson started out as a promising young poet, publishing his first two books (As Sampling Poetry, The Next to Last Violence) with the big press Norstedts in the early 90s, but then he didn’t publish again until the 2000s. During the 90s he worked and wrote for Teatermaskinen, a radical performance group. This work included both socially activist theater (for example projects based on interviews with survivors of sexual assault etc, material that he often later incorporated in his poems) and extremely Artaudian performances. His work was re-discovered in the late 90s by Aase Berg, who was then the editor of the prominent journal BLM and by OEI, a conceptualist journal started by Jesper Olsson (a scholar who got his PhD studying with Charles Bernstein in SUNY Buffalo in the 90s).

Since then Jönson has published a slew of books, won a ton of prizes and become known as something like the re-inventor of that classic Swedish genre, “working class literature” (a very important genre in Sweden, unlike the US). Jönson is known for his working class background and his blue collar work (his last job was carrying shit out of a nursery home). But while a lot of his writing deals with the working class experience, it’s quite different from traditional working class literature, which tends to be more social realist in style, and tends to have a focus on a progressive politics. Jönson’s writing is quite different: the subject tends to be unstable. On one hand, it feels very biographical, but on the other hand the subject tends to shift and veer out of and between different speakers. His “voice” contains multitudes in its hatred and repulsion. And unlike traditional working class literature, it offers no vision of progress (whether person or political). The books just go on and on (and they are getting longer and longer (One lukewarm review compared the 1243-page med.bot.in to a “brick” thrown threw a window, as if there was an inherent riotous “class hatred” involved in writing such long books).

Throughout, the poetry is absolutely absorbing – even when it is at its most grotesque, even when it starts spouting off theoretical jargon, it is driven by an intensity that is hard to shake off (even funny and corny sometimes, like when he invokes both Fredric and Jenna Jameson). Reading it is deeply deeply uncomfortable (we are taken into accounts of rape, and the text uses racist language etc). Unlike American experimental dogma, Jönson does use the “I.” He uses it constantly. And no matter how horrific the content of the story, it feels like it might actually be him – Johan Jönson – speaking. That is to say, the easy distinctions between author and persona no longer applies. Reading Jönson’s work is much more troubling. At one moment he may seem disturbingly confessional and the next it might occur to us that he is appropriating somebody else (such as a genocidal Serbian general, a rape victim etc). The effect is upsetting and dizzying. He makes a spectacle of a brutal, violent masculinity, driven by hatred (As in some Gurlesque work, which is why Aase Berg has argued that Jönson could be considered “Boylesque.”).

from Bodies in Motion and Rest (2001):

I think it was sometime later that I beat up my sister. I held onto her head and banged it against the doorframe in the hall. My mom drove her in to the ER, where they sewed up the back of the head. The three of us agreed not to say anything to him, my father. I still remember that I felt no regret.

In the dream my grandmother has steel-gray labia. From cancer tumor, out of the cunt stream civilian-dressed cannibals. They are all workers of some kind. Grandpa drinks booze out of a see-through garden hose and fucks her in the mouth so that she will remain pregnant.

My father and mother renovated, dug out and planned to expand. But they only spent a couple of years in the cottage. The land was leased and Båkab bought it in order to build a powerline over the river. Not even my father could change their plan. When he told his wife of this failure, I saw how he began to cry in fury. It was the only time.

The children are getting killed. Very bloody. Saw. Axe. Something that looked like a hunting knife. Can’t see. Know that they are being slaughtered. Yes that is what is happening. In their cribs. Can’t do anything. Don’t know why. They are not screaming. Maybe they are sleeping. Know that it is happening… while it is taking place. Can’t prevent it.

My dad and sister sleep with each other. Don’t now exactly what they are doing. In my sister’s girl-room. In her bed. She is seven or eight. But somehow adult… in some way. Mom sits next to the bed. Knitting. Nobody is surprised. I am peeking in through the door.

My daughter has crept out on the balcony. Up on the fence. She falls down from the balcony. I hurry out and catch her in my arms before she is smashed against the asphalt. But I still see a heap of flesh. She cries and screams. I console her. She doesn’t react to my deep, heavy kisses.

Three women on their backs. A yellow floor. No walls. I’m going to fuck them all three. Lick them. Splash-cunts. In with the fingers. They are going to blow me. I am naked. The cock is standing up. Very big. The world’s biggest. I feel no shame about showing my body for the women. One of the women is Iranian. My neighbor. Twenty years younger. In her twenties. But looks the same. She lies down. Says: Mmm, how lovely to get a big and grown-up cock. I am small boy. Maybe ten. Conscious of that this happens in the dream. Want the orgasm to happen in the waking state. Pisses myself. For a long time. Strong pull in the belly. The underwear…the sheets and matress will get soaked.

Jönson is incredibly pessimistic. His poems are permeated with hatred, impotence and disgust. They are not about edification or moving up in the world: there is no future (in Lee Edelman’s famous terminology), no way to go. Global Capitalism is already controlling the flows. Jönson’s response is to push this hatred, humiliation and degradation to an extreme. And this is where the “affect” becomes really interesting. Rather than the in-control “thinkership” or American conceptualism, Jönson writes a totally overwhelmed and overwhelming poetry. In Brian Massumi’s famous distinction between feeling and affect (feeling being the bourgeois ego’s capturing of the anarchic affect), Jönson poetry starts out in the isolation of the degraded working class stiff but the hatred breaks down easy distinction between subjects and feelings. It might be hatred one minute and ecstasy the next, and then that ecstasy might be implicated in global capitalism’s continual degradation of people.

You can see this in Collobert Orbital (first published in Sweden in 2006 and later, in my translation, by Displaced Books a few years later) where Jönson rewrites (appropriates) the diaries of heroic French writer Danielle Collobert (Jönson read it in Norma Cole’s translation into English, I’ve translated it into English), resituating them in the era of global war on terrorism and global capitalism’s unencumbered flows of capital. Or in the Burroughs-influenced Virus. Or in Restaktivitet (translated by Michael Peverett here):

32. Around eight, a couple of hours before the slaughter-van came, all the pigs started screaming. They had worked out when it was coming. You needed ear protection. It was a different cry from when the sows gave birth. Then the boars roared continuously with aggressive voices. They stood with their front legs on the top rail of their pens as if inciting the sows to bite to death the newborn piglets that were not immediately sucking on teats.

133. You use a special electrified rod to paralyze the sow and prevent this wastage of the farrow. Then you put the runts in piglet pens, under heat-lamps.

134. Piglets that weren’t going to be be fed on-site or sold to other breeders were gassed in gas chambers. Then the carcasses were sold, mainly to cat- and dog-food producers.
135. I think that all newborn pigs should be kept alive.

136. After the slaughter-van came, you needed both ear-plugs and ear-muffs. Mostly, the pigs went into the pens like they were meant to. Any who were stubborn you held their hind legs and shoved them, like heavy, heavy wheelbarrows, up the gangplank and into the slaughter-van. You sweated. When the door had closed, the holding pens had been put away and the slaughter-van had gone, then the pigs that remained in the stalls would shut up. You could then take off the ear-muffs.

137. During the lunch-hour we slept on feed-sacks inside the warehouse.

138. Before the visit of an animal-welfare inspector or a major buyer, if it was in spring or summer, the pigs were released into outdoor paddocks. They ran around and jumped and poked in the mud. In the sunlight they shifted colour from beige gray, dust gray, to brilliant pink, for a few minutes. When the signal for feeding sounded, the pigs rushed back into the stalls, and the doors closed.

139. The second feed was at one. You went with a large feed wagon in the corridors between the stalls and dispensed pig feed, mixed with antibiotics and vitamins, into the feed-chutes. Your mouth and throat went dry from the dust that whirled up. It stuck a little in the eyes. You sweated. The dust-mask itched. Through the protectors you heard pigs’ noises when they ate and drank.

140. She says: What did it sound like?

141. I say: Like beings. Like animals. That crawl about. That emit sounds: gurgling, swallowing.

142. She says: Are they so helpless?

143. Well, they’re looking forward.

144. No way back!

145. Not that there’s any way forward, either…

146. I laugh.


Last year there was a big backlash against Jönson, as some writers (in particular Jens Liljestrand in Dagens Nyheter), arguing that he was essentially fomenting “class hatred” without any constructive solutions to offer (I wrote about it here. Ji Yoon Lee wrote about it here.). In particular, Liljestrand was offended at a passage from med.bort.in in which a worker goes into a bourgeois home and wipes his “herpes-bubbling cock on the family’s towels, also the children’s.” Instead of offering a nice class critique, Jönson’s speaker infects the nice bourgeois family with his falling apart, infected body; it is as if his wage-labor has pathologized him. And by wiping his filth on the clean child towel, he soils the fake innocence of the bourgeois home and its “futurity” with a grotesque working class body. He cannot spit out his repulsion but he can share it.

To make matters worse, he also fantasized about killing the conservative prime minister, Reinfeldt:

can’t be helped.
really want.
Reinfeld. Borg.
Bildt. Björklund.
Olofsson. Littorin. (especially now.
when the sobbing horn-dog.
who blames his children.
and who just supported the forced-labor line.
for everyone. without exception.
collected a grotesquely large severance payment.)
all of those.
names. will be exchanged.
will be killed. in some way.
i want to experience. the flash-like feeling.
of satisfied revenge.
of first-class entertainment. despite.
the fatal counterproductivity.
i want to see it. experience it. the invisible bullet.
from a totally unexpected direction. in a live broadcast.
how the skull. is smashed. apart. kind of explodes.
form within. and then. the surprised.
slightly sorrowful expression.
Reinfeldt’s normal expression.
slightly sorrowful. at the same time in some way sympathetic.
and undeniably superior. but now.
completely irreversibly. and.
then the crowd’s screaming. of horror.
and delight. and pleasure.
the same as when.
Palme was killed. when.
any undeniably incarnated
Leviathanian prince figure at all.
is dissolved or falls.

There was heated discussion in a lot of the newspapers. The standard defense was that Liljestrand and other critics were not reading Jönson properly. It was not him who had wiped his herpes dick on, but a persona. Likewise, it was not Jönson who had wanted to see the prime minister killed, but a persona. A poem is not real violence. But this is a total cop-out: Jönson’s poetry is saturated with class hatred. But it’s also driven by disgust and love and ecstasy. It’s just not that easy to tell them apart. That is the difference between “affect” and “emotion”: The emotion is easy to tell (apart from thinking, apart from other emotions) and affect, to me at least, is something much more anarchic.

I leave you with a question: Jönson is one of the most talked-about, influential poets in Sweden, yet few Americans – even, or especially, among the conceptualists – seem to know about him. Why is that? I’ve translated his book Collobert Orbital, which was published by Displaced Press. He may not have appeared to crack jokes on the Collbert Show, but his class hatred gets debated in the newspapers (and the radio). Why in all this discussion about Conceptualism has there been no mention of this incredibly famous poet? Tell me your theory and I’ll tell you mine.

22 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate


    There are really two strains of Conceptualism, I think, and they tug against each other. One side is sometimes called Conceptual (or the forerunners of it), but their work is either more like a Zen koan or some sort of unnerving wallpaper: Cage, Warhol, some of the experimental artists in New York in the 70s (like some of the ones in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers)…

    Cage didn’t care about “Concept.” He was interested in attention, wakefulness, if anything an anti-conceptual conceptualism. Same for Warhol. He tried to strip meaning and big ideas from his work (“if you stare at something long enough the meaning goes away”)…Both Warhol and Cage were also against critique, judgement. With Cage, you pay attention, you listen. You open yourself to sound and voices and chance. With Warhol, the camera rolls and rolls. There’s something very Pop about Cage and very Buddhist about Warhol.

    The other strand is the more conservative one, a Conceptualism that loves the Big Idea, or ideas in general. Perloff and Goldsmith and certain art critics. I agree, I find some of Goldsmith’s work interesting, but the ideas behind those works are more than a little banal, with their welll-worn critiques of authorship, notions of production, etc. Thinkership-wise, they simply preach to the choir — that’s why some of the Language poets applaud them so highly.

    The more general the idea, the more cliched it tends to be…


  2. James Pate

    One more element about American Conceptual Poetry that seems out-of-date with what we see in the art world, the music world, etc. And that has to do with this heroic notion that at any given time one style/aesthetic must be seen as dominant and closer to the moment’s truth.

    Perloff and Place and Goldsmith and some of the strongest defenders of Conceptualism often have a very linear (and, unfortunately, triumphantalist) view of poetry, it seems. If the art world post 70s is an explosion of styles, for example, with Barney existing side-by-side with Pop artists side-by-side with followers of minimalism, to name only a few, many of the arguments behind ACP remain in an early-and-mid 20th century world where one aesthetic is seen as capturing the true moment, the zeitgeist.

    Clement Greenberg’s arguments for Abstract Expressionism run along these lines. To understand the modern moment you had to understand Pollock. And you had to see Pollock and the Expressionists group as more true-to-the-moment than other artists of that generation. The new was singular.

    ironically, the Abstract Expressionists would be victims of this very mode of thought when Pop Art came around. Their moment had passed.

    But I can’t think of any serious art critic today who would make such totalizing arguments about art and zeitgeist.

    To me, it seems that some of the Conceptualists are making arguments for a much older world. The poetry world has exploded — there are tons of different types of writing out there — and the heroic model of the avant-garde espoused by some of the Conceptualist is old-fashioned in that context.

    I agree with Place and Goldsmith when they say writing should catch up to the art world. But the art world as it has existed for several decades now — not the art world of the 1950s.


  3. Todd

    Hello Johannes,

    Imagine a panel discussion on working class poetry at any American lit. conference: Jönson shares the table with Philip Levine, Mark Nowak, the spectral Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks, and Jim Daniels. Beyond not being American, Jönson is positively un-American: his anger is not righteous; his rage is not recuperable as raised consciousness; his abjectness leads where?

    Now imagine a panel discussion on Conceptual poetry with Kenny “Look no hands, ma!” Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, Craig Dworkin, and Marjorie Perloff. Jönson’s work is positively baroque with affect, while Dworkin’s Parse, for example, is more of an austere glass-bead game. Jönson’s work is so compromised with subjectivity and untidy compared to the formal purity of the others’ poetry.

    Jönson simply doesn’t fit easily into American ways of doing poetry. I’m hard-pressed to think of American poets who embrace the abject with such verve as he has. Americans hate despair and uselessness, even the Conceptualists. Goldsmith’s doing nothing is “poetry mak[ing] nothing happen,” and it still survives in “the valley of its saying,” however denuded of tress and arable land.

    Throughout the whole Conceptualist/Metamodernist debate, I keep thinking of the preface to Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. Maybe I’m misunderstanding today’s argument, but much of what he has to say about poetry’s prospects seems relevant now, even if ugly emotions such as disgust are no longer forbidden and even if there’s no longer any such thing as nature. Isn’t the argument in some ways about “elementary feelings…in a state of excitement?” Aren’t Conceptualism and Poetry of Affect both ends of a Romantic knot that poets continue to tug on?


    “The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and, lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. The language, too, of these men has been adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions. Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation.
    I cannot, however, be insensible to the present outcry against the triviality and meanness, both of thought and language, which some of my contemporaries have occasionally introduced into their metrical compositions; and I acknowledge that this defect, where it exists, is more dishonourable to the Writer’s own character than false refinement or arbitrary innovation, though I should contend at the same time, that it is far less pernicious in the sum of its consequences. From such verses the Poems in these volumes will be found distinguished at least by one mark of difference, that each of them has a worthy purpose. Not that I always began to write with a distinct purpose formerly conceived; but habits of meditation have, I trust, so prompted and regulated my feelings, that my descriptions of such objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a purpose. If this opinion be erroneous, I can have little right to the name of a Poet. For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature, and in such connexion with each other, that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified.
    It has been said that each of these poems has a purpose. Another circumstance must be mentioned which distinguishes these Poems from the popular Poetry of the day; it is this, that the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling.”

  4. Johannes

    Great summary Tood. About Romanticism: it does seem relevant. Why do you think it is that both “quietist” and “experimental” poetry seem so eager to put themselves in opposition to some kind of strawman Romanticism (of the “Romantic I”, of excessive effect/affect, of tasteless ornamentality or too-bare-bones lines)?


  5. Johannes

    I would actually love to see Johan and Mark Nowak on a panel, especially if we brought back Brooks – and also maybe if we could bring in Amiri Baraka.


  6. Kenneth Goldsmith

    Thanks, Johannes. Fascinating stuff and broadens the conceptual room in new and powerful ways. Reminds me of Guyotat? Sad that this is the first we’ve heard of Jönson. Look forward to translations.

  7. Johannes

    Hi Kenny,
    Thanks for replying. yes, I think Guyotat is one influence on Johan. If you get Roof or a press like that to publish it, I’ll translate another one of Johan’s books… Or at least an excerpt. It’s just that it’s really hard to get translated works published and then when nobody bothers to respond to them, it’s very disheartening. / Johannes

  8. rRoss Sélavy

    A few things –
    1) while I’m not for a second debating the point, I’m interested in how Jönson is “conceptual” – is it the appopriation and re-writing of Collobert?
    2) I think it’s problematic to take KG at his word, especially regarding “not reading”, I think that’s fairly standard agent provocateur posturing, saying something ‘shocking’ in order to get people to pay attention to conceptualism. I mean Perloff herself has demonstrated that reading Goldsmith is a productive exercise (and I like to dip in and out of No. 111 every now and then, it’s kind of intoxicating). Though that rhetorical posturing is getting really old and kind of infuriating for me. But also, I think it’s a problem to … allow … KG, Perloff and Place to ‘speak’ for all conceptualism – there are a lot of people out there, on the conceptualist side of the fence (so to speak) who are just as infuriated with this ‘poetry wars’ bullshit as anyone else. Or just people who are more reasonable, but not as easily digestable into soundbytes (Dworkin talking about conceptualism is really interesting
    3) I totally agree with James that there’s something conservative about a lot of conceptual writing (especially that produced/championed by the afformentioned triumvirate). For one it’s austere – but also kind of puritanical. But there are irruptions – have a look at Place’s books on Lulu. They seem kind of insane, in a really good way. And Goldsmith’s procedure falling apart in Fidget is a moment of intense beauty to me. Perhaps it’s better to look at Bök and Beaulieu like that – I remember Beaulieu at one point criticising stuff for “not being conceptual enough” because it broke procedure (in spite of that moment in Fidget, which kind of defines that book). But I think that puritanical asceticism is important to note, and it seems very American for some reason…. So there are levels operating. At least one seems almost Calvinist though.
    4) James is exactly right that Place and Goldsmith and espeically Perloff “have [project? can one take them at their word?] a very linear (and, unfortunately, triumphantalist) view of poetry”. It’s processionalism at it’s most dogmatic (though no one truly believes that conceptualism will ‘take over’ or ‘defeat’ the lyric, I think there is a concerted effort to have it usurp any other form of post-language ‘avant-garde’ (huh!) writing. The difference between this and previous ‘moments’ in literary history I think is the self-awareness that this is what they’re trying to do – a pre-emptive self-historicization and canon-building.
    5) aside from Jönson, someone else who stands out, to me at least, as disrupting conceptualisms dogma and conservatiism is Steven Zultanski. Pad is a hilarious “fuck you” both to the idea of conceptualism as high art, and tasteful, and to the masculinism associated with such. And his latest book, Agony, is self-described “confessional conceptual writing” and seems really bleakly hilarious and kind of disturbing, in a very interesting and kind of delirious way. Also, interestingly, Zultanski invokes the first personal pronoun. Pad uses the possessive “my”, and the “I” is present in Agony. Which is kind of strange as their operation in there seems more straightforward than in a lot of lyric poetry… more like what Place denounces in “I is not a Subject”, more ‘Hegelian’ or something. But I think that Pace piece is… well profoundly stupid in its straw-man-ism. But that’s something different, and not necessarily relevant here

  9. Michael Peverett

    Yes, I too would like to ask more about the sense for you in which Jönson is a conceptual author. As Kenny G seems to confirm Jönson does not have connections with the social network around US conceptualism (unlike, e.g. Cia Rinne and Leevi Lehto.) So I guess you are saying that his work has intrinsic conceptual features – as distinct, say, from Aase Berg? Is this something to do with constructing big books that it is maybe more relevant to “get a handle on” than to read from page 1 to p. 1243? – but this, I feel, is only one element of work that is – in some ways – extremely various. Or is there a bit of background information I’m missing here…

    I make a connection, though perhaps this is only in my own mind, with the working-class composer Allan Pettersson whose enormous painful symphonies seem to challenge us not to listen to them in any conceptual spirit but instead to immerse, to join them.

    I share rRoss’s notion of deep schisms within conceptualism about whether the conceptualist work is to be read (and how much). (I touched on this here when I wrote about the publisher Information As Material somewhere in here: http://www.intercapillaryspace.org/2013/06/more-literary-detritus-notes.html)

  10. Johannes

    Michael and Ross,

    I think the question “Why call Johan a conceptualist at all?” is really interesting and worth thinking more about. In fact, I think it’s worth thinking about who gets called it at all? I think Marjorie Perloff is right that we live in a “conceptualist moment” – in the sense that a lot of poets are working with appropriations and samplings of various kinds, as well as poems that complicate the autonomy of the artwork etc. However, I think she’s very wrong when she suggests that her favorite conceptual poets, such as Kenny, have brought this into poetry. I feel like people have been working with this kind of stuff for ages, long before people were talking about “conceptual poetry.” And Perloff’s official “The Conceptual Poets” is in fact a conservative way of trying to make an explosion in very varied poetry (the “too much” “plague ground” of American poetry) fit into a scholarly notion of “avant-garde.” As if the change had to come as an idea, rather than the result of technology and a whole bunch of factors. And this goes back to James’s discussion of the linearity of the conceptualism, questioning why it’s so important for the idea of “conceptualism” to be exclusive-seeming.

    Michael’s suggestion that what determines inclusion in conceptualism is “social networking” is I think actually really important, and also an often overlooked factor when it comes to discussions of various experimental or “post-language” poetry cliques. The “bay area” idealization of “community” (where everyone knows each other) becomes “social network” in the computer age. In order to be part of these groups, you need not aesthetic affiliation but social affiliation (this is of course true of “community” as well). You got to be part of the “group”. And in some ways the poetry is just a way to get into the group. This has of course an inherent xenophobic element: that may account for why in American experimental writing, translation is so unimportant.

    Having said that…

    The simple reasons I connect Johan to Conceptualism are probaly 1) his work does a lot of work with appropriation and sampling. And has from the very start (his first book was “Som samplingdikter” from 1989). He draws on all kinds of stuff, including interviews that he used for his social activist performances. 2) A kind of performativity to the writing. Here I am thinking about his “bunker” – he’s famous for writing in this basement room that is covered with books and newspaper pages. he is inundated with sampling materials. He goes down there for hours every day and write in a way that I think imitates/parodies wage labor (this going back to his fame as the re-inventor of “working class literature”). He’s even got asthma from the room’s lack of ventilation, imitating a kind of work-related injury that is so common (sadly). And here there is of course a really interesting contrast to Kenny: Kenny used a computer program to copy the NY Times very effortlessly and bodilessly, while for Johan the physical labor of sampling is important (that’s my interpretation).

    And 3) He actually is very much part of the “conceptualist network” that Michael mentions! Leevi is obviously an extraordinary networker. I don’t know about Cia. But Johan is definitely not. The opposite. He’s kind of a grumpy guy (until you get to know him). But he is most certainly part of the “conceptual network,” and he’s way way more prominent in Scandinavia than either of those two. Now he’s published by Bonnier (the biggest press in Sweden) but when he was first “re-discovered” he was published by OEI – both the journal and the press – and he’s remained connected to them in a lot of the discussions about contemporary poetry. OEI was started by Jesper Olsson, who studied with Charles Bernstein in SUNY Buffalo in the 90s. He was really inspired by Charles’s diy attitude, and when he came back to Sweden he started OEI, which helped “recover” Johan (as well as recover and discover and call attention to a whole range of writers, such as Anna Hallberg and, yes, Cia Rinne). It was also part of a “recovery” of the Swedihs 1960s avant-gardism – particulary the concretists and in particularl Oyvind Fahlstrom (Olsson write a scholarly book about this topic). Another important player in Scandinavian conceptualism is Paul Bjelke Andersen, who used to run the journal Nypoesi and who brought me and Kenny to Oslo to read together a few years ago. I think Paul is in one of the conceptualist anthologies, even though he’s not really known as poet but more of an activist, editor, curator and all around impressario. And I think Paal’s top two favorite poets are Johan and Caroline Bergwall. This suggests to me that he’s very much part of a kind of social network of conceptualism.

    So the question remains: Why do no American conceptualists know about this guy? I know that when Displaced books published Collobert Orbital, Paal sent out a lot of emails to people in the “conceptualist network” urging them to buy and write about the book. But very few bought it and I don’t think anybody wrote about it. Why not? Is it because Johan is not a social networker? Is it because I am not par to of the experimental “community”? Is there something inherently anti-translation about American experimentalism? Etc. I want to hear what you think.


  11. Johannes

    It strikes me that maybe I sound a little harsh/censorious in my discussion of what I perceive as a lack of interest in international literature. But I really am interested in what everyone thinks about this.


  12. James Pate


    really good points.
    And yeah, I was only speaking of a certain branch of Conceptualism, not the entire movement, but the branch that seems to get the most attention.

    Sometimes, I think Conceptualism in Goldsmith/Place mode is actually meant to be a parody/performance of an avant-garde movement. The heroic Clement Greenberg-style positioning, the drive for domination, is so over the top that at times I really suspect it’s meant to be an in-joke of sorts (an in-joke Perloff and a lot of others are missing). A playful performance of heroic mid-century notions of the avant-garde.

    And I wish that was the case — that would be really interesting! But, alas, no, too often that branch of Conceptualism really does seem to believe in its own self-proclaimed triumphant.


    I think you’re exactly right when you talk about Conceptualism being around for a while now (at least the Warhol/Cage variety, which, like a argued above, is really closer to a Zen koan, Warhol wearing a Walkman to a dinner party with Burroughs, for example).

    But because Perloff does follow a heroic, linear notion of the arts, she needs specific heros — not a diffuse network or echo chamber. It’s odd that a movement so supposedly against the author function should bring the author function so squarely to the forefront.


  13. lazslo

    I am interested to hear/see your opinions/thoughts, not so much in why international literature has a lack of interest/is ignored, but rather where do you think it is being ignored? Do you think it is a distinctly American problem, the kind of disregard for international contemporaries? It makes me think of when people refuse to go watch films with subtitles. Furthermore, do you think a wilful blindness (to use the equitable language) on the part of the so called conceptualists in America to ignore their international counterparts for the purpose of canon building/self imposed historicism?

  14. rRoss Sélavy

    @Johannes – I do think social/group dynamics do play into this a fair bit – you don’t see much discussion of the work that comes out of places like Parasitic Ventures, Information as Material or gaussPDF in the mainstream discourses surrounding conceptualism (or indeed Tan Lin, who I find very interesting indeed, and whose use of Lulu as a platform links back to Place’s POD work, which seems to be… not treated as part of her ‘official’ oeuvre which is kind of confusing to me). I also remember Beaulieu reviewing an artists’ book by a guy from the UK for Lemon Hound, saying that it was ‘bad’ because it didn’t fit the normal conceptual mode, and the author replying that he’d never even considered it conceptual writing and was really confused (especially as he’d put it together over a weekend or something like that).

    Translation also comes into and is a key thing for Lin’s work – especially as he publishes different ‘editions’ which are just the texts run through google translate. Which I think creates barriers toward people approaching his work if they’re not bi- or multi-lingual. It’s the intimidation that people who work with (a) language feel when confronted with another which they don’t understand. There are other things going on there too – all the multitudinous different editions of the books (there’s like nearly 10 different editions of 7 Controlled Vocabularies or something like that) which destroy the idea of textual authority. If you’re going to write about the book… which one do you write about? I quite like that.

    Regarding translation again, and Guyotat, I think you’ve really hit on something there. I remember finding out that Eden Eden Eden was OOP, and after exchanging emails with the former publisher (who I later found out is a crook), but who told me that the rights had expired, and would have to be re-licensed from Gallimard, I frantically emailed Semiotext(e) because … well I think these books should be available (and it seems there’s an unpublished translation of Prostitution) and they said that they are going to publish Arriere-Fond, but that they’re iffy about Guyotat (though they love him) because Coma has sold really poorly. Which I personally think is criminal… but it does seem to point to people having a kind of bias against translation. That’s the only reason I can think of for people not approaching that book. It’s well-nigh perfect, and Guyotat is one of the greatest writers alive… perhaps people just haven’t heard of him? Maybe there’s a problem with so little of his work being avialable in translation? But that will be directly linked to difficulty selling it, I’d guess… anyway someone needs to re-publish Eden & Tomb, and find out what’s going on with Prostitution. And I’d love for there to be a translation of Le Lievre.

  15. rRoss Sélavy

    @James – I think that both is and isn’t going on. Place is very vocal about her work being a kind of institutional critique, and I think Goldsmith has talked about his work as such as well (there’s that piece …. what is it “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution”? he talks about critique and disruption and stuff in there I think). And there is the kind of … theatricality to all of this, it’s all very performative, Goldsmith’s public persona, Place’s really extreme rhetoric … and in that rhetoric and theatricality there seems to be a kind of disconnect, like it seems like .. well art, not 50 years ago, but 30-ish years ago. It seems like the 89s when people thought that mirroring or performing capitalism could work as a critique (I’m thinking of Place here). I’m assuming that Place knows that work though, so I’m wondering what she’s up to. Because it didn’t work, and everyone just got swept up into the warm embrace of capital and became rich and stopped caring. The idea that someone like Billy Apple can offer a genuine critique of capitalism now seems absurd and kind of sad. So I wonder – is this a project that is designed to fail? Place has espoused an aesthetics of failure, and a desire to “fail again, fail *worse*”. The problem is that one cannot know that (because she doesn’t break character) – and one cannot know who else is ‘in on it’, and who isn’t.

    And even so, I’m not sure what to do with the utopian avant-garde rhetoric. Even Perloff has admitted that the language of the avant-garde isn’t tenable anymore (in Unoriginal Genius). But then she’s reluctant to abandon it, and the whole publicity machine attached to conceptualism seems predicated on that, and a processional historical model, as you say (which is why Dworkin doesn’t get the same press as others). Which is all very confusing.

    And then there’s the work itself. And while some of it is very interesting, other stuff… idk. It always seems to be the small, fringe, minor stuff that is at all interesting to me. I mean I’m even more interested in Place’s POD stuff than her ‘canonical’ work (there’s a 350-odd page book of just the letter ‘u’ repeated over and over, and a book that is just black pages). Everything else seems so curated, so High Art (I find it interesting that all of Goldsmith’s references are to major artistic figures as well, it seems like a concerted move to curate appropriate, tasteful lineage in order to create an aura of High Art legitimacy) … everything is predicated on good taste. And my immediate impuse toward such is one of cynicism, quickly followed by an urge of nihilistic destruction.

  16. rRoss Sélavy

    re: Lazslo’s comment, it also reminds me of NZ’s really kind of brutal literary isolationism. There is virtually no contemporary poetry stocked anywhere that isn’t NZ, except for maybe Seamus Heaney and Carol Anne Duffy, and, if it’s a trendy independent bookshop, possibly some Bukowski (if you count him as contemporary). There are some exceptions, but they’re rare.

  17. James Pate

    Hi rRoss,

    Really interesting comments…to me, the performative aspect of Conceptualism is the most interesting, by far. But it lacks the humor of Warhol’s fright-wigs or his A Novel or that guy in NY in the 70s who carried around the fishing pole or Meat Joy…Art that has a highly performative element. Their stuff (the Goldsmith/Place mode of Conceptualism) makes too much sense! That’s really the problem. Too much of it is “conceptual” in the conventional sense of that word, dealing with concepts.

    re: Place’s “institutional critique” — I’ve heard her say that on panels too, many, many times in fact, but it’s a common trope at academic conferences…If she was “performing” a certain overly familiar academic trope (a la Glenn Gould in some of his interviews), I’d find that fascinating. I doubt she is.

    As far as Guyotat, that guy is great. Truly amazing. Have you read the Bolano’s story about him? And Foucault’s short (but brilliant) essay about him? I think he actually is popular with a lot of fiction writers I know. Everybody I know who reads Pynchon and Vollmann and Acker loves that guy.

    I can’t help but suspect the anti-visceral, anti-image rhetoric that has saturated so much American poetry, largely thru. some of the Language poets, would make him of much less interest to certain experimental poets.


  18. rRoss Sélavy

    Yeah, the lack of humour, aside from like little jokes or self-depreciating things by Goldsmith (or some of the hilarious stuff in No. 111, or, again Zultanski, or other fringe stuff that doesn’t get much press) is … kind of a real problem I think. I think it’s probably part problem, like it seems part of the whole Serious High Art thing. I remember reading a thing about flarf, in that it was like a huge relief to a lot of people in the ‘experimental’ camp in that they were allowed to be funny and find stuff funny (of course there’s hilarious stuff in people like Bruce Andrews, and a lot of stuff a the Fluxus end of stuff, but on the whole ‘experimental’ writing is Serious Business, because it’s art, or something like that). And I think you’re right about stuff ‘making too much sense’, it (it being the mainstream stuff)is easily digestible, easily commodifiable (ironically perhaps moreso than the lyric “I” which still remains nebulous and intangible, and seemingly beyond the understanding of Place, if “I is not a Subject is any measure) which goes completely against the supposed critique of capitalism or whatever that such work purports to provide. But you’re right – everyone and everything is supposedly a critique of capitalism. I just find it kind of hard to believe that anyone is as naive as to think that that’s actually workable… just as I, on at least one level, am somewhat confused by the straw-man conception of the lyric and the lyric I that these people put forth, like I find it really hard to believe that people actually think that stuff, on either side of the “debate”.

    re: Guyotat, I haven’t read either the Bolano or the Foucault – do you have references for them? I’d be interested in reading them. Most of my fiction writer friends like him too, but his work is really hard to get now (aside from Coma). And libraries here in NZ don’t have him (or at least not in English) which is a pity. I’ve also got a 5000 word essay on Eden Eden Eden that I need to publish somewhere

  19. Todd


    I think the too-easy resort to opposing the Romantic or lyric I is just laziness, if it’s not too rude to say so. The lyric I can stand for anything from the bourgeois to the Cartesian subject to a phallogocentric self to a creative writer. It’s a handy and handily vague target.

    About the comparison to Wordsworth, though, my thoughts are scattered and ill formed. I think the ordinariness of the language in a work such as Goldsmith’s Day echoes Wordsworth’s decision to write poetry in language “really used by men.” It’s a strange echo, though, torqued through the differences between language and writing, speech and text, machine code and alphabets, analog and digital media.

    Goldsmith isn’t so much interested in language as in writing, though, and specifically in the way writing as reproduction deprives language of its aura. The moral ambitions of Wordsworth’s turn to everyday language are absent from Goldsmith, but what you do find is an accommodation to a new conjuncture of technology, media ecology, and subjectivity. Is this an accommodation to neoliberalism or a critique? Is it even possible to tell?

    It seems to me that for Goldsmith, writing is itself secondary to the apparatuses that produce it, replicate it, manifest it. And like the early 20th-century Chicago poets who found turbines and skyscrapers revelatory and progressive, for Goldsmith the displacement of writing from the hand to the machine to the internet is a sort of progress as well.

    The Chicago poets were consumed by the democratic implications of new technology; I don’t think that such considerations enter at all into Goldsmith’s work.

    Anyway, I think Keston Sutherland’s jeremiad against anti-subjectivist dogma is a useful tonic here.

    But, Goldsmith’s work is only one part of a diverse, complex field.

    I think of Yedda Morrison, K. Silem Mohammad, Harryette Mullen, Caroline Bergvall, and many others whose conceptual work is nothing like Goldsmith’s, and whose ‘unoriginality’ is a kind of discourse analysis.

  20. James Pate

    When I say “American poetry” in that last paragraph, I mean a segment of the experimental scene — obviously there’s tons of stuff out there that isn’t anti-image, etc. I think the ossification of the anti-visceral anti-image philosophy is a real issue in certain segments, though. I think it’s why Johan’s work has been met with such silence in the States despite the publisher spreading the word thru. certain “conceptualist networks” (as Johannes discusses above).

    Ross: The Bolano story is called Labyrinth. It was in The New Yorker about a year ago or so, but I think it was published in one of the story collections too.

    The Foucault essay was written when a bunch of writers wrote defenses for Eden Eden Eden so that it wouldn’t be banned (tho., if I remember correctly, it was banned in France anyway). A lot of it is in the Macey biography, but I think the whole thing is in one of the more recent Foucault anthologies.

    I’d be interested in reading that essay — sounds super-interesting.

  21. rRoss Sélavy

    @James – I’ve sent the essay to you via facebook, if you want to read it

  22. rRoss Sélavy

    And I just remembered, there’s a fair bit about subjectivity in there, I think, via Kafka’s Penal Colony