CONCEPT OR THING?

Jim Behrle: He’s no Duchamp

The Kill List poetry phenomenon consists of a book (of conceptualist poetry) and the various responses to it by poets on, or not on, the list.

The Kill List is an actual list (four per page) of living poets with either “rich” or “comfortable” after their names.

The fake outrage by Jim Behrle—one of the poets (“comfortable”) on the list and obviously thrilled at the publicity for himself, and the chance to exploit it for more (ads for T-shirts, “comfortable” or “rich”)—is currently at the center of the hyper-self-conscious, intra-reactive, analytical, blog-storm.

Conceptualism’s first rule is: In the presentation of the work, thing comes first, whether it is Duchamp’s urinal or Josef Kaplan’s The Kill List.  The presentation of the object must be pure; there can be no visible authorial intent in the presentation of the object qua object.

Since pure objectivity can never be presented as such, however, the thing presented, the instant it is presented, moves in the public perception from thing to concept.

The moment the public shifts its view from thing to concept, a second round of narrowed public consciousness finds it once again to be a thing; this movement between thing and concept is the very engine of the known and knowing universe.

The Kill List itself will always be safe in its thing-ness.  Its validation as a thing grows more secure with each new round of conceptualist speculation.

If it were only a conceptualist work, in fact: a comment on drone killing, a Marxist commentary on middle-class po-biz, an examination of the nature of personal threat, an analysis of social awareness and identity based on simple inclusion and exclusion, it would merely fizzle out, intellectually and ineffectually, and quickly become yesterday’s news.

But because the book, The Kill List, exists as itself, as a “real list,” and was presented merely as that, it survives, forever swinging back and forth, in the public mind, between concept and thing.  Long after Obama’s drone “kill list” or Frederick Forsyth’s espionage novel, Kill List (the google champ) is forgotten, the poetry “joke” will be remembered.

Because this phenomenon exists only among poets, the Kill List, as a public event, is small.  Duchamp’s conceptualist joke rippled the pond of the general press.

Behrle’s “Penis List,” a short poem which jokes about po-biz penis sizes (Billy Collins, 4 inches) and calls poetry itself a large vagina, recently published on the website HTML Giant as a joking response to The Kill List, is hopelessly banal, because it is conceptualist (abstract) only and forgets the rule: life and art require first a thing, and then, only then, will the proper conceptual transmorgrification occur in the public consciousness.

In a bygone era, it was the technical, metrical wizardry of a work by Alexander Pope that was its immediately presented thing-ness—no idea was present except as it was launched in the minds of readers by physical arrangements of sound-harmonics, and these exist as solidly as the porcelain shape of Duchamp’s toilet.

We say Pope’s rhymes and Duchamp’s toilet, but in presentation, no owner (authorial intent) is visible—the public gets wind of a toilet in a museum, just as it gets wind of a specific set of verses which offend the public taste.

Offense is key here. The offending words either melt into air, or the villain who uttered the offending words is made to feel the cudgel of punishment upon frail flesh and blood.

But if the offense is an everlasting object, real fame is possible.

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