Against Conceptual Poetry is the third volume of Silliman’s Universe long-poem project, its 45th degree according to the title page, and its 45.4th degree according to its LC cataloguing data. So possibly another .6 degrees of this section are yet to come. The title appears to be a play on the title of conceptual poets Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s 2011 anthology Against Expression. The text carries many of the marks of a conceptual poem, and could be read as a kind of parody.
It’s a transcript, chopped into mostly Silliman-like six-word lines, of a 3-hour 12-minute interview that Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO of Novell and Google, Jared Cohen, once an advisor to U.S. Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, Scott Malcomson, once foreign editor of The New York Times, and Lisa Shields, vice president of the US think tank The Council on Foreign Relations, conducted in Britain with Julian Assange in 2011 as part of research for Schmidt and Cohen’s 2013 book The Digital Age. Created in Britain by Americans who are speaking with an Australian who is in flight from sex charges in Sweden and who operates the globally fugitive website Wikileaks in an attempt to be a political benefactor to global humanity, the text offers the first solid basis for the Bookthug claim that Silliman's Universe is a work of “globalization” literature. In the background as one reads is always the struggle of the US to drag Assange from his global perch and into the range of American national power.
Is Against Conceptual Poetry a conceptual poem? Certainly it is primarily a concept. From a literary/aesthetic perspective, once one has identified the concept – much like in Goldsmith’s The Weather – one may have no need to read further. Some conceptual poems – Peter Jaeger’s The Persons and Rapid Eye Movement come to mind – raise a
The book’s cover image offers more complication. It’s a detail from an oil painting by Susan Bee, “The Slap,” in which a blond woman is slapping the face of a groping man who has considerable resemblance to Assange. The woman is dressed in drab colours, the man in spectacular superhero-like colours and signs, suggesting that the slap – the riposte – is one against power, much like Assange’s Wikileaks activities are a rebuke to power. The interview, however, includes no references to the events in Sweden which have caused Assange at the time to be under house arrest in Britain. The interviewers, including Lisa Shields, the one woman, appear to accept Assange’s self-portrayal as a deeply ethical and humanitarian person. The only physical interaction between Assange and an interviewer is with Shields, when she accidentally spills water on her laptop and he instantly rescues it, and her, by turning it “upside down.” “That was sweet,” she says. “Thank you. Go ahead” (68-69).
The positioning of the text on the cover makes it seem that the slap depicted is a slap also against conceptual poetry – i.e. that the spectacular Assange is as much a conceptualist as, say, the also spectacular Kenneth Goldsmith, both purveyors of appropriated text. And indeed one could read the interview as suggesting that – as portraying Assange as thoroughly cerebral, analytical and conceptual in his ethics, in contrast to the much-less-than-cerebral moment that both figures in the cover painting are occupying. Together the cover image and the text raise the awkward question of how to balance the importance of the global liberating of governmental information that Assange aspires to accomplish against that of the redressing the personal indignities which Assange’s Swedish accusers seek to have done. In an ideal world both goals would be achievable. But in an ideal world there might be no poetry, and no spectacular feminist paintings.