Steve Tomasula is the author of the novels The Book of Portraiture (FC2); IN & OZ(Ministry of Whimsy Press); and VAS: An Opera in Flatland, an acclaimed novel of the biotech revolution that has recently been re-released in paper by The University of Chicago Press.
Recent essays on body art, literature and culture can be found in Data Made Flesh (Routledge), Musing the Mosaic (SUNY), Leonardo (M.I.T.), and numerous magazines both here and in Europe. He holds a doctorate in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago and teaches in the program for writers at the University of Notre Dame.
He is interviewed here by David F. Hoenigman, author of Burn Your Belongings.
Tomasula began by speaking about conceptual writing:
Anyone who steps away from the bestseller lists can see that the literary landscape beyond its commercial walls is just as wild and lawless as that of visual art, just as varied, just as conceptual: novels in the form of dioramas; stories told as recipes, poems in skywriting or genetic code, pixels, skin—as well as print and sound—carriers of language with the strangeness authors have always given ordinary speech in order to transform it into art. In fact, this strangeness, or unfamiliarity, may be the very core of what makes writing literature, and pushed to its boundaries, what makes literature conceptual. As Gerald Bruns puts it, conceptual writing is “made of language but not of what we use language to produce: meanings, concepts, propositions, descriptions, narratives, expressions of feeling, and so on. It’s not that conceptual writing excludes these things; it’s that the writings we call conceptual are no longer in their service.” In this way, authors can be like painters once photography freed them from their service to document, to depict historical events, to create life-like portraits. The clowns of both Shakespeare and Beckett understand this, undermining the pragmatic literalness of their masters’ speech. The same can be said of fictional guidebooks such as Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s Paris Out of Hand, or Michael Martone’s The Blue Guide to Indiana with its description of the trans-Indiana mayonnaise pipeline. As Steve McCaffery’s exhaustive, performative reading of headings in the Toronto Phone Book suggests, it’s hard for a functional street map, directory, or urinal to be read as art. It is only by disconnecting the pipes of these “texts” that they can become symbolic. It is only by making them useless that they can, paradoxically, become useful—useful in a different sense—not as urinal, map, or phone directory, but as rhetoric. As art.
Novels and poems are, of course, put to many uses (as therapy, commercial product, greeting cards, entertainment, docu-drama…). This is also true of conceptual literature, especially those works that blur the line between art and life. “If someone walks up to you and starts talking,” David Antin says at the start of one of his talk poems, “how do you know if it’s a poem?” Even Antin’s talk poems—long impromptu monologues—even, the most conceptual of writing—the sound poem of non-rhymes for no reason—has to be entertaining, that is, has to serve. Conversely, even the most non-conceptual work, the work deep in the service of some pragmatic function, is written according to some theory, even if it’s only a concept as to how many syllables are in a sonnet, or whether the protagonist can see through walls or must obey the laws of physics. Or as Aristotle put it, every work has a philosophical component (content), a form (aesthetics) and rhetorical function (political).
Because all conceptual writing can be pressed into some service and all serviceable writing is grounded in some concept, it’s more illuminating to think of both conceptual and traditional writing, indeed, all of literature, as messy and overlapping rather than as separate and distinct. Or call it a fuzzy spectrum with the middle, the mainstream, filled by traditional literary works. The sturdy, useful, end of the spectrum can be exemplified by the Harlequin-esque romance novel, or greeting-card poem rewritten under the guidance of marketing focus groups. The opposite end of the spectrum is where we encounter “useless” conceptual writing: works like the scream that R. Henry Nigl came across one night in the street and now recreates as a found object, a work of art meant to be just as provocative, just as challenging to the nature of literature as Duchamp’s Fountain was to the nature of visual art.
He spoke of the conventional form in mainstream novels and how conceptual literature differs:
That conventional form, as well as unconventional form, carries a viewpoint, an attitude through language and to language and to the world. It believes that literary form embodies epistemological, or ontological positions, or otherwise articulates convictions about how the world works, including the literary world. By its very nature, then, though institutions such as bookstores and publishers tend to limit the definition of what counts as a novel or poem, conceptual literature tends to keep these definitions unresolved. Or at least fun and unexpected. This is a kind of literature that asks us to look again, to consider what else the text might be doing if our first reaction, our reaction premised on past ways of reading, doesn’t seem to fit the conventions we’ve been taught (indoctrinated) to read by. It asks us to re-read if we find ourselves in the position of viewers who came upon a cubist painting for the first time and exclaimed—”People don’t look like that!”
It’s not hard to imagine a reader coming upon Scott Helm’s “Non Additive Postulates,” with its fusion of natural and mathematical languages and exclaiming, “That isn’t a poem!” It’s not difficult to image a similar reaction to Lucy Corin’s plotless “Machine Dreams” or what is often called language writing, writing that is about, whatever else it may also be about, writing: fictions like Brian Evenson’s “House Rules” or Lydia Davis’s “Story.” Indeed these aren’t stories if a story must have conventional plots, psychologically rounded characters, cinematic description. Ditto for Shelly Jackson’s “Skin,” a story that will only be published, one word at a time, as tattoos on the 2,000 volunteers who make up Jackson’s book. But it’s also easy to imagine our gentle reader leaving these works with the reaction many of Picasso’s first viewers must have had, willing to have a second and third look, remaining open to the possibilities of another way of seeing, and willing to consider the individual work on its own terms. Art critic Dave Hickey summarizes this second reaction as “Huh? Wow!”
That is, the art that most interests Hickey, and many readers of conceptual literature, is art that doesn’t just go about business as usual. It’s art that might be confusing when first encountered but makes a reader go “Wow!”—once they see, for example, how Helm’s equation-poem directs reading: how the square root of love and its other math-English fusions fail (for all their mathematical precision) to get at the cause of a failed relationship; or how a reader has to abandon linear cause and effect for clouds of association; or how these nebulous associations may come as close to saying something about the human condition as we can hope for. Nor is it hard to imagine the “wow-reaction” to Brian Evenson’s “House Rules” once the reader sees how this dialog between fiction and philosophy poses the problem of faith and reason. The core of who we are. The same is true for Jackson’s “Skin,” once we consider this story, a story we will never actually get to read, her book a contemporary articulation of the labyrinths Borges imagined to such effect and what its existence has to say about our bodies, our narratives, the conception of the author, what it means to publish…. Publish means, after all, to ‘make public.’
He spoke of the HERE⋅NOW anthology he is currently working on:
The premise for HERE⋅NOW is simple: it’s based on a belief that the world changes (we now live in a world with cloning, cell phones, e-mail); that people think in contexts other than those of our forbearers (e.g. feminism did happen; jihads come west; cognitive science eclipses the talking cure; we’ve lived through revolutions in biology as well as in the humanities); that some authors, like some artists or musicians, work in forms that explore or otherwise seem in sync with these contemporary ways of thinking about a contemporary world. No one expects today’s architecture to mimic Bauhaus architecture. No one expects contemporary painting to be synonymous with post-impressionism. No one expects contemporary music to sound like Bach. So why shouldn’t our expectations for what counts as a novel, short story, or poem also reflect larger cultural changes? Why is it, as William Gass wonders, that the dominant form of the 20th century novel is the 19th century novel? That is, though conceptual writing has a tradition that goes back to the origins of writing itself, HERE⋅NOW is an attempt to present its face at our moment. It is partly an address to the perception that casual reader might have, wondering why there is such variety in contemporary visual art—the sculpture made of blood as well as more traditional painting and video—while a survey of the literature section of most bookstores, course syllabi, and other literary institutions suggests that literary fiction is a genre with constraints as narrow as those of the accountant.
About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings.