On Felix Bernstein’s Post-conceptual Integrity

How to approach an endorsement of Felix Bernstein’s Notes on Post-conceptual Poetry? Bernstein seems at every turn to have preempted not only critique but praise and indifference as well:

Am I, is this, neoliberal mise en abyme? Am I, is this, indistinguishable drivel? Have I, does this, seek critical redemption? Have I, does this, offer critical redemption? Have I, does this, align totally with the museum, with my father’s name, with Kenny Goldsmith’s name? Have I found, is this, the proper exhibition space to make my points seem properly removed from the mise en abyme? . . . Should I, does this, suck up to Language poetry? Should I, does this, suck up to Post-conceptual poetry?

And so with how many layers of self-awareness should this text proceed? Do I address what Bernstein has preempted or do I address the preemption itself? Do I ‘tack on’ my own preemptions? Do I fashion my own self-deprecating refrain? Ultimately I am already doing these things, and ultimately it doesn’t matter: Bernstein is giving the art world the middle finger it seems to be always already entreating.

I will say that Notes on Post-conceptual Poetry is an ambitious project in which Bernstein takes himself very seriously. In fact I will say it again: Notes on Post-conceptual Poetry is an ambitious project in which Bernstein takes himself very seriously. Yet by underlining the relative seriousness of Notes I am not trying to suggest that Bernstein’s ongoing endeavours in Watersesque avant-garde filmmaking are by contrast inconsequential, or even that Notes’ typos and Gagaisms and “Beyoncé is neoliberal / Beyoncé is subversive” messinesses are anything but inseparable from his critico-curatorial project. Rather it seems to be the case that at a basic level, Notes on Post-conceptual Poetry is less about so-called Post-conceptual poetry and more about inventing a space in which Bernstein can do what critics have always done: posit his own intellectual invincibility. “For Hegel,” as for Bernstein, as Spivak, quoting Hyppolite, writes of Derrida, “‘philosophical discourse’ contains ‘its own criticism within itself’.”

Excerpted online from Kenneth Goldsmith and Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s project “Poetry Will Be Made By All,” Notes on Post-conceptual Poetry is a list of ninety-three (93) notes, plus intro and endnotes, in which Bernstein attempts the most explicit and energetic deconstruction of prevailing avant-garde social minutiae I’ve yet encountered. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a text more intelligibly self-aware. Drawing on thinkers from Deleuze to Lacan to Love to Ngai to Badiou to Barthes to Perloff, and combining a Zizekian X-ray vision with the biting “you can’t scare me” of youth, Notes constitutes Bernstein’s irruption into / refusal of the institutional avant-garde. —And I should repeat that he is young. Bernstein is young (recently 22), talented (son of Guggenheim Fellow Charles Bernstein and Guggenheim Fellow Susan Bee) and, most importantly, he has put in the work. (Despite Notes’ recurring avowal of ideological disparity, the parallels between Felix’s 21st century iconoclasm and Charles’ subversive essays of the ‘70s are almost too easy to point out.)

The peril of Notes on Post-conceptual Poetry is in its near-total negativity—in its construal of the marketplace as an intellectual popularity contest. Freely espousing the biographical fallacy, Bernstein used 2013’s “Beyond Vampires and Zombies” to perform a kind of lead-by-example critique of what Notes has decided is Vanessa Place’s structuralism but which I will simply call Vanessa Place’s “thing.” Bernstein wants us to be talking about someone’s “thing.” This means talking about how a poet looks—how they, as an online presence, as a living breathing text, ‘cannot not signify.’ And as much as this kind of biographical trespassing can be wince-inducing and ugly, the Internet has pretty much rendered it logistically inevitable:

I . . . urge you to track down . . . articles that condemn Internet art and count how many make an exception for a particular Internet artist. Then try and figure out who that Internet artist is in relation to that critic (a friend, a student, a powerful person, an academic colleague, an already canonized figure?). . . . I would make a list of [what] I’ve found recently but that would be difficult to do without severely alienating myself from those critics, who quite honestly, I would love to hear mention my name in the conversation of Internet art, in a bad way or good way. Would you like to hear your name mentioned?

While this attitude—that art is barely about art, that art is about the hypocritical nuances of socio-curatorial ladderclimbing—is refreshing to hear expressed, Bernstein’s own attempts to both expose the canon and get chummy with the canon are often hilarious. For example, after an incisive and sustained “mimick[ing of] the reactionary discourse” which is frequently directed toward Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual poetry:

(this is not my opinion, btw, I am a big fan of [Goldsmith’s] work, and am also applying to graduate school at a place where he teaches, and would love to grab coffee.)

But the diatribe felt so earnest! Bernstein has effectively covered all of his bases, deploying first criticism and then endorsement with undeniable tonal sincerity. This is what I mean by intellectual invincibility: Bernstein is attempting to deride the way Goldsmith will productively hop between institutional endorsement and institutional critique (“appeas[ing] left and right”) while already explicitly hopping himself. Surely Goldsmith at least prefers this to the usual Conceptual subjects.

But the sincerity of Notes’ derision is only underscored by Bernstein’s discussion of those few writers in whom he does detect authentic levels of ability—Trisha Low, Lonely Christopher, and Cecilia Corrigan, to name what feel like the only examples. Endorsements such as “Cecilia Corrigan’s Blonde Ambition” (I also admire Corrigan’s work) can only be taken, in the hyperaware context of Notes and nepotism, as a claim that Bernstein became Corrigan’s friend based on those same qualities which make her such a worthy artist . . . as opposed to the prevailing schema, where relations trump ideological integrity. Thus Bernstein performs the contortion of reviewing his cake and hanging out with it too.

If Notes were to give to its own shtick the kind of label it loves to confer on others, it might be something like ‘postconceptual meta-gimmicks’ or ‘caffeinated gay.’ And yet to reduce the project to gimmick (a word I am surprised not to have mentioned even provisionally) would be to overlook the very real pathos of its final note. You can practically feel the exhaustion:

Even if total hatred of everyone’s actions is precisely the most advanced and persistent manifestation of the research you are pursuing, a craft you have been routinely encouraged to carry to its apex, nonetheless, you are still always supposed to make an exception for the pocket fringe microcollective or journal or curator or publisher or parent or friend or gallery that will support you. You will inevitably be forced to gag on the cock of community and family [even if this community and family is some sort of neo-Paris-is- Burning anti-family parodic-family post-family or new-model-of-kinship or wtv]. And this perhaps is the final ball and chain that weds you to the market that you can all expect to find waiting there, if you pursue any sort of negative path. I hope that reading this will make you less surprised than I was when I arrived here. (author’s own brackets)

For all his safeguarding and preemption, Bernstein does not believe he can reconcile Notes with a mode of existing which will not irreparably harm the people around him. And he is probably right. But I want to claim that while Bernstein may be most concerned with simultaneously ravaging slash sidling up next to the Post-conceptual powers that be, he cannot avoid the fact that his Notes constitute, for the necessarily extracanonical public, a magnetic readerly text. As Keith J. Varadi comments on the Facebook status in which Bernstein originally posted Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry: “You really ‘get me’ Felix.” And while it is clear that Varadi wants to ironically undermine Bernstein’s extremely convoluted project by suggesting that Notes is comprised of ideas he had already had, his comment remains indicative of the degree to which polemic is epistemically inclusive. Thus Bernstein ‘overlooks’ the fact that not all of us are tech-savvy namemaker Perloffs or ultrastructuralist Places or MTV poet-casuist Goldsmiths; and that the novel in which over and over North Americans find more solace than any other is the one in which we can each of us vicariously call out all the phonies.

Never miss an issue

Get a subscription to three issues per year. Cancel anytime.

Donate to TCR

Support one of Canada's longest-standing publishers of contemporary writing and art

Advertise in TCR

Download our media kit to find pricing and specifications