Conceptualism Beyond the West: Divya Victor on Displacing the “Imperialist Pedigree”

by on Jan.27, 2015

A ver, compañeros, does “Gringpo” exist?  How might its colonialist frameworks operate not just on behalf of but also within Conceptualism?  What happens when a conceptualist writer of color faces these frameworks and works to wrest herself out of them?

To open up the discussion proposed by the Mongrel Coalition, I’m sharing an intriguing quote by Divya Victor that Walter–a commentator on yesterday’s post–excerpted from a convo featuring Victor and fellow writers Swantje Lichtenstein and Riccardo Boglione.

As Walter notes, Victor’s take on the need to “circumvent a Western, primarily imperialist pedigree” doesn’t sound far off from the Coalition’s decolonial aims.  Victor suggests how the narrow critical imaginary of ‘gringpo’ conceptualism ultimately lies in its Euro/US-centered canon formation and coterie:

I want to argue that if there is to be an articulation of conceptualism’s globality, and if we want to use its trans-national significance as a way to catalogue and historicize contemporary literary production, then we must insist on thinking repetition without Stein. In other words, we’ll have to circumvent a Western, primarily imperialist pedigree. The critical effort (Goldsmith, Perloff, etc.) has portrayed conceptualism as a historical continuity between two origin myths— one set in European, sometimes transatlantic, modernism (Duchamp, Stein, Klein, etc.) and one set in North American conceptualism in the 60s and 70s (Huebler, L. Wiener, Acconci, Cage, Schneeman, Kosuth, etc.). These artists and writers supply our ur-texts that then essentially allow us a convenient, but narrow, regionally- and racially-specific way of imagining the projects that present as conceptualist right now. It gives us good mothers and fathers, and then in turn defines our pedigree. This is obviously insufficient.

If critical efforts have managed and controlled our genealogies of conceptualism, the continually documented simulcast of coterie has defined its geographical parameters. Of course contemporary coterie matters, but that too is only a partial explication of influence. It is necessary for us to imagine and articulate conceptualisms not only as a product of regionally specific scenes or communities— for instance the thriving and brilliant community of poets working in New York city, and circulating in the gyre generated by the compelling and ever-dynamic Segue series. We need to also describe emerging forms of conceptualism as results of historical pressure and consequences of globalization. To do so is to include a consideration of who else is making conceptual works and to pluralize the poets who can occupy the cartography of conceptualist tendencies. To do so is to explain these emerging tendencies as a response not only to already institutionalized origin myths, or already privileged urban centers of making (New York, L.A.), but also as responses to lived practices of immigrants, travelers, or those who have systematically eschewed the fabrication of localized community by being itinerants. Conceptualism has made space for new forms of inclusivity, but these spaces have to be articulated into existence. Conceptualism’s “globality,” in other words, has to also make place for placelessness in practices of writing that come out of geographic transitionality.

In addition, Victor explains how misreadings of her work in the US have been used to uphold the white avant garde’s frames:

As someone who did not grow up in the United States, the record of my own trajectories of influence is quite other. I do not see my work as responding only to forms of art I’ve consumed, studied, or engaged with in the last ten years or so. When I began writing poems, the objects or oeuvres they resembled were entirely alien to me. I made Beckett-like poems or Joyce-like narratives knowing nothing of either writer. I was told I was “channeling” dead white men even as I tried to explain that I had never heard of them. Institutions instrumentalize even alien life, such as my own, and I was understood through my resemblance to these men— their beards and frosted noses superimposed on my flesh. As an immigrant and a woman of color, these networks of influence that have defined conceptualism in the United States— whether modernist literary experimentalism or post-punk commodities— continue to remain alien to me, and necessarily so.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. David Need

    I guess I can’t see the point of preserving anything called “conceptualism” so I don’t see why any effort should be spent assuming “an articulation of conceptualism’s globality,” nor any point to using its “trans-national significance as a way to catalogue and historicize contemporary literary production.” It’s like wanting in on the aristocracy, isn’t it?


  2. Johannes

    Kent Johnson tried to leave this post but for some reason it didn’t come through:

    Last spring (with Vanessa Place, Timothy Donnely, and Jena Osman), I presented some thoughts that seem connected to the issues getting discussed in the recent posts, so thought I’d throw in the link: “Notes on Safe Conceptualisms”–

  3. Ian Keenan

    Visual artists outside New York are familiar with the drill of being evaluated on the basis of whether they agree with or can be indoctrinated into the theory of Columbia (not the country) Art Hustory or some nearby school. Is that what Diva Victor is doing here? Why is she a conceptualist? I would get sidetracked if I tried to be conclusive on these questions but by some coincidence her classmates are also conceptualists. But she will present the logic that an abstracted, unnamed group of protagonists in other places or coming from other places could garner sympathy through their identity if they agree with her theoretical views, as she has presented herself as such a protagonist. Can artists or writers be evaluated on whether they are imperialists? Did Ed Said conclude on that? If you were to accept that logic, would it make Duchamp the antagonist Victor makes him out to be, the draft resister of WW1 who said that his conception of the artist came from the Sanskrit (an influence shared by his favorite poet, Mallarme), when those who can be reconciled with the Western theoretical approach are the protagonists? Or is there a tension between the moral and the literary, referenced here in different connotations of black and white, and if there was, would there then be a tension between the literary mythologies and situations in the world, like the fact that the Haitian Senate voted unanimously in September 2011 and May 2013 for the withdrawal of Brazilian troops from its borders that are supporting a neo-Duvalierist government that has literally, not figuratively, stolen all the foreign aid money from the treasury, the ruling Workers’ Party in Brazil having passed a resolution to do so after meeting with Haitian opposition leader Moïse Jean-Charles, but Brazil has not done so and has extended its occupation through at least 2016, partially out of pressure from the US? Brazilian writers mostly feel the same way about this that US writers feel about the imperialist wars, and it’s culturally relevant that Jean-Charles probably couldn’t get more than 15% of US Members of Congress to eventually take his phone call, but Duchamp’s interest in chess doesn’t make this all black and white.