Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Conceptual writing, translation, exhaustion, 1960s

I just re-read John Barth's "The Literature of Exhaustion," and found this peculiar passage about Borges, "Day" by Kent Johnson and Kenny Goldsmith, and, most interestingly from my perspective, translation (the article was originally published in Atlantic in 1967):

"... Now, this is an interesting idea, of considerable intellectual validity. I mentioned earlier that if Beethoven's Sixth were composed today, it would be an embarrassment; but clearly it wouldn't be, necessarily, if done with ironic intent by a composer quite aware of where we've been and where we are. It would have ben potentially, for better or worse, the kind of significance of Warhol's Campbell's Soup ads, the difference being that in the former case a work of art is being reproduced instead of a work of non-art, and the ironic comment would therefore be more directly on the genre and history of the art than on the state of the culture. In fact, of course, to make the valid intellectual point one needn't even recompose the Sixth Symphony, any more than Menard really needed to re-create the Quiote. It would've been sufficient for Menard to have attributed the novel to himself in order to have a new work of art, from the intellectual point of view. Indeed, in several stories Borges plays with this very idea, and I can readily imagine Beckett's next novel, for example, as Tom Jones, just as Nabokov's last was the multivolume annotated translation of Pushkin, I myself have always aspired to write Burton's version of The 1001 Nights, complete with appendices and the like, in twelve volumes, and for intellectual purposes I needn't even write it. What evenings we might spend (over beer) discussing Saarinen's Parthenon, DH Lawerence's Wuthering Heights, or the Johnson Administration by Robert Rauschenberg!"

What I find interesting in this passage is not that people in the 1960s were playing around with authorship functions and appropriation, but the strange equation signs that exist between these appropriated texts and Nabokov's translation and "the Johnson Administration by Robert Rauschenberg."

As if translation was just a transcription (even Nabokov's notoriously painfully literal translations). I think this speaks to the general unease or "scandal" of translation: it troubles a little like works of appropriation trouble. But in some ways translation seems to be the opposite. Appropriational works like "Day" and the ones Barth mentions above seem to insist on a certain kind of materiality, while translation creates something more like an excess, pushing the texts into a kind of flux (for example, in Nabokov's case it generates the excess of annotations).

And, what might recreating "the Johnson administration" as a work of art mean? That sounds like a pretty mean work of art.

Does this suggest that the Johnson administration was a kind of appropriation of the Kennedy Glamour that Rasuchenberg had dealt with? It also seems to suggest that appropriative works take away the agency of the subject matter in some way. R's version of the Johnson Administration afterall cannot wage war in Vietnam (or give civil rights to African-Americans).


Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Johannes asks:

"Does this suggest that the Johnson administration was a kind of appropriation of the
Kenne[d]y Glamour[...]?"

Answer: Kenney is no Kennedy, but still, I will never have Kenney's Glamour.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Barth doesn't seem to remember the Menard story very well. Nor do I, but I do remember that the whole point of it turned on Menard not merely appropriating or transcribing the Quixote, but on partially succeeding in becoming the potential human being who would write it spontaneously. Menard thus exemplifies, to heroic extremes, an old-style poetic of inspiration and authenticity, explicitly not conceptualist. Borges story is conceptualist, but that's another matter.

5:44 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Good point. And I think that's why a lot of people (me included) were disapppointed that Kenny Goldsmith didn't actually transcribe the NY Times article.


6:24 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also I like what your comment does to the whole Johnson Administration conceptual art piece.

6:25 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

On a partly related note (Conceptual poetry comes into the post), some fun discussion on Flarf and art criticism at Digital Emunction blog today:



2:47 PM  

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