Book Review

Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry by Felix Bernstein

a book too clever for me, but still engaging

OK. Whoops. So… After I feared that Kill All Normies might be too clever for me and then it turned out it wasn’t, I got a bit cocky. That is why I found myself reading Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry by Felix Bernstein (Insert Blanc Press, 2015), a book that was too clever for me by like a million times. It was clever but I don’t think it was shit and HIDING behind being clever because the bits I could understand I enjoyed, but, honestly, I can’t really tell you if this book is good because, most of the time, I couldn’t understand it.

GULP.

I’m a reasonably smart lad, yeh, and even tho I have two degrees (#catchphrase), I’m not especially au fait with academic language. Bernstein’s book – a series of essays on post-conceptual poetry, digital art, intersectionality, the commodification of queer and other “outsider” cultures, the gross pretence that social media democratises creative engagement and – a crucial theme – that the colossal volume of output from numerous voices online means that it is the role of the critic and the curator that has adapted “least well” to technological change – I found to be often insightful and often fascinating. However, I didn’t understand most of it, so maybe the rest of it wasn’t. And maybe the bits that I DID understand weren’t insightful: they just felt like they were because I was excited to be able to understand something amongst the intelligent Cali academese.

This idea, though, about curators and critics having not adapted to the digital age is an interesting one, and one I can understand. Despite the proliferation of content, yeh, economic and cultural privilege still have MASSIVE parts to play in which people get to be noticed, get to be read, get to be exhibited and get to make a career of their art (or Arts). A case in point – which Bernstein is knowingly aware of – Felix is the son of Charles Bernstein, the Language (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) poet and acclaimed literary scholar. I haven’t read any of Charles Bernstein’s poems since I was an undergraduate, when I didn’t enjoy them because I found them fucking impenetrable. This book, Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, not only presumes a readership that is comfortable with and knowledgeable of Language (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) poetry, Conceptual poetry and Flarf poetry, but one that has opinions on these types of poetry, some of which I’d never previously encountered. Bernstein (Felix) is not writing a text here that aims to educate, but to argue: this is a set of writings that self-consciously offer opinions, rather than facts, and I think it was the manner in which this was presented that appealed to me as a casual reader accidentally reading a text meant for the initiated.

Bernstein is eloquent and his language and sentence structures betray a very academic intelligence, which is like the total opposite of mine, like. Well, that’s not true, it just makes me more comfortable to pitch this as clever and different to my cleverness, rather than cleverer than my cleverness but the same kind of cleverness. Often when I read books that are too intelligent for me (certain translations of Thomas Mann, James Joyce, other academic texts etc..) they make me feel stupid. They make me feel like there is a set of symbols which I understand (letters and words and sentences), but combined in such a way as to lose their meaning through the complexity of idea and sentence. Reading Bernstein, yes, I felt my intelligence and the limits upon it, but rather than feel that and feel judgement towards myself, it instead reminded me of the importance of knowing ones own limits. I am in no way stupid, but I am not as clever as many people. I’m maybe cleverer than most people, but I am not cleverer than all people. This isn’t me being arrogant, it is me reaching for the self-knowledge that has eluded me for so long.

I can hold down conversations about literature with critics and academics, but my reactions, my responses, to the works in question are always far more visceral, more emotional, than those held by people who critique in more “conventional” ways. I think this is why I liked Bernstein’s book: because he critiques in a way that evidences more intellectual rigour than I could muster, but he also injects himself and his emotional responses into his complex, paragraph long sentences built of polysyllabic compound words that Scottyboi here had to look up to understand. This is writing that is basically academese with a fucking person behind it. The absent “I” that exists in any writing that is detailing opinions – which, of course, all fucking criticism needs to be doing to be valid – is present here, and I respect that, and I like that.

Bernstein’s assertion that curators and critics need to stop elevating artists and writers whose background would have made them ripe for exposure anyway is important: yes, there are more black and queer artists and poets getting attention, but almost all of these people have attended elite universities and slash or come from positions of economic and or cultural privilege. The remit widens, but it widens in certain directions. Is Bernstein being generous, though, when he writes that this is a failure of critics and curators, or is it in fact a success – maintaining the socioeconomic status quo while appearing to be progressive? When there is a world of content out there, online, is the fact that working class black/queer/less able people are not the black/queer/less able people getting attention?

Bernstein writes insightfully about the myth of the global middle class, of the hidden poverty behind the lazy intellectualism of the lives of many people. Manufacturing happens somewhere, objects are made and sold, and it is this transaction that makes the masses of revenue that are then able to fund the advertising and PR jobs that fund the media jobs that fund the kooky restaurants and nightspots that all fund the schools, hospitals, roads and emergency services that everyone uses. The idea that money comes from nowhere is a fallacy, that the PR agencies that do the public health campaigns for the NHS that pay the doctors and that the cinema the doctors watch Pixar films in and Pixar itself are all making money that circulates entirely at this comfortable, painless, middle class world. It’s not true: we are only able to live how we do in the West – and not all of us here do, let’s remember that – because we have outsourced our dirtiest essential work to other countries, who have to deal with the pollution and the risk that comes from mining, metallurgy, chemicals manufacture etc..

Well, I suppose it looks like I understood more from this book that I’d realised, however it was only the wider social criticism I was able to understand, as the literary and visual art criticism was beyond my knowledge base.

Still, it’s always good to engage with an intelligent mind, even if you can’t keep up all the time. And maybe if I put my head down, continue to lay off the booze, maybe I too will become able to read books like this without struggling and maybe, one day, in the distant future, maybe even write like this too. (Not that I particularly want to, lol)

BUY Notes On Post-Conceptual Poetry BY Felix Bernstein DIRECT FROM PUBLISHER HERE

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