1. Arguments against the dominant role of the subject or of “subjectivity” in art have existed for as long as the art they reject. “Anti-subjectivist” accounts of art are “Romantic” in origin and were first asserted contemporaneously with the “subjectivist” accounts of art which they are usually claimed to supersede.
2. The logic of supersession, redundancy, obsolescence, not being able to do X anymore, etc., derives from the aesthetic and commercial discourses that surrounded 19thC French painting on the fringes of the Paris Salon. Its adoption by contemporary poets is uncritical and unreflexive in two principal respects. First, it is a “logic” purified of its specific historical context, which was a history of French revolutionary violence, of the recurrent threat of revolution, of political restoration and of the early capitalist transformation of society. The logic of 19thC French art history is abstracted from its real historical contexts and grossly simplified into a mere parody of the profit motive. Second, the exponents of this superficially art-historical (but actually profoundly unhistorical) logic are not the refusés, they are the exhibitionists of the main Salon.
3. The most important impetus to anti-subjectivism in 20thC theory came from Louis Althusser, under the rubric of “anti-humanism”. As Jacques Rancière wrote in his first book, which was an attack on exactly this tendency in Althusser’s thinking and on its lamentable expression as reactionary evaporation in the battle of 1968, Althusser’s ban on “subjectivisme gauchiste” [leftist subjectivism] was a means of legitimating his “coupure épistémologique” [epistemological break], which was essentially nothing but an intellectual justification of intellectuals at the traditional expense of workers’ rights to speak for themselves and in their own language. The Althusserian ban on subjectivism is precisely a ban on proletarian self-expression. The same interdiction resonates in a freshly subtilized form in the contemporary ban on “subjectivity” in poetry.
4. None of the poets who says that the subject has been expelled or eradicated from her work has ever given a remotely coherent or persuasive account of the “subject”.
5. In an early essay on Beethoven written in 1937, Adorno can already be heard referring wearily to “the cliché “subjective”“, which was just as common a term of reprobation during the Third Reich as it is today. Artists and critics have been “rejecting” the “subjective” for hundreds of years, usually on whatever sketchy, skeletal, unexamined terms are nearest to hand. The antisubjectivism now being perpetuated by contemporary poets has no new features and it does not respond in any meaningful detail to its own historical moment.
6. More significantly for so-called “conceptual” poets, the refusal to give a conceptual account of the “subject” whose rejection defines the schema of their art is a manifest expression of contempt for the very work of conceptual definition itself. Conceptual poetry does no conceptual work toward defining the ”subject” whose rejection is its principal dogma. Poetry dismissed by conceptual poets as Romantic, subjective, expressive etc. often does a great deal more of that conceptual work than “conceptual poetry” does.
7. There is no such thing as “traditional poetry” and there is no such thing as “the Lyric I”. The use of the first person pronoun in poetry is as various and complex as the use of language itself.
8. The justification of antisubjectivism on the grounds that it liberates readers or consumers of text is completely dogmatic and formalist. It is Althusser again: get the definition of the text right and the revolution will follow. In reality, readers will be more or less active and free in their uses of texts depending on thousands of unpredictable factors that no poet could ever control or design. Contempt for the conceptual work of definition of the “subject” extends all the way over to this patronising fantasy about the liberation of strangers, whose actually infinitely complex lives full of many kinds of incalculable unfreedom and oppression are routinely ignored in favour of a stupefying heroic abstraction.
9. Conceptual poets and antisubjectivists of every other poetical stripe feel secure trading in nominalist fictions like “the Lyric I”, “Lyric poetry”, “traditional poetry” etc. because they are indifferent or oblivious to the history of poetic technique. The most superficial knowledge of technique is enough to give the lie to the whole polemic. A thorough knowledge of technique makes the polemic seem unambiguously banal.
10. The ignorance of technique implies a casual and contemptuous attitude toward the history of work. The antisubjectivist dogma is an optic for ironic theorisation of value alone; its implications for a theory of labour are wholly reactionary. Marx’s account of the inhumanity of wage labour was precisely that it extinguishes the individual subject and reduces her to a mere quantity of “socially necessary labour power” and finally to Gallerte. Capital itself is the fundamental “antisubjective” force in the world and the pattern of all the others. Marxist revolutionary theory is about restoring the subject to society and abolishing the coercion that actually and in material reality desubjectivises workers. Conceptual and other antisubjectivist poetries may indeed be colluding with the action of capital in its oppression of individual lives only in an ironic style intended to get that oppression into sharper focus, or to make readers feel agitated or disgusted with their subordination. But if so, the collusion is manifestly nowhere near ironic enough: the readers of this work are not agitated into fighting against capital but only pestered into moaning about conceptual poetry. (Conceptual poets know this and are content merely to get famous through being moaned about.)
11. The best conceptual artworks in every medium are those in which the conceptual is denied sovereignty in the progress of an intense contestation with the subjective. This is why there are no great “conceptual poems” in the current iteration of that old generic idea, despite the self-aggrandisements, which we are supposed to worry might be just sophisticated jokes. Conceptual poetry today has simply given up on the dialectic of schema and instinct in favour of a comfortable and easygoing settlement with schema. It doesn’t matter how inflammatory or abrasive might be the material fed into the schema; for so long as it is unthinkingly regarded simply as “material”, and for so long as the subject is just a convenient fiction to be theoretically proscribed, this poetry will not in any radical way be “conceptual” at all.
[ 1 May 2013 ]