Portrait of a Coterie

By Cassandra B. SeltmanNovember 17, 2015

Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry by Felix Bernstein

FELIX BERNSTEIN’S debut essay collection, Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, is not what you would expect from a 23-year-old, Brooklyn-based writer and artist. This is not a book of cosmopolitan post-internet lyric poetry. Instead, Notes begins with a long essay (including an appendix and footnotes) that mockingly critiques the various trends in American experimental poetry since the 2000s, charting the Conceptual Poetry scene that has revolved around Kenneth Goldsmith, Christian Bök, Craig Dworkin, Vanessa Place, Caroline Bergvall, Kim Rosenfeld, and Rob Fitterman. 

Born in 1992, Bernstein swerves in and out of the scenes he discusses, the millennial conditions he diagnoses, and the “new sincerity” he critiques. His own self-suspicion flippantly resists the notion of network building that his father, Charles Bernstein, so neatly perfected with his original publication of the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in the 1970s (and then later with his institutional curatorial projects — the Electronic Poetry Center and PennSound). His attitude puts him at odds with some of his peers. Bernstein takes to task those urbane poets who, in his view, attempt to update the New York School and pledge allegiance to coterie and art in the name of queerness and subversion. Yet he self-consciously makes these same moves himself.

Prior books on US and Canadian Conceptual Poetry in the 2000s have been written exclusively by academics or poets who have emphasized poetic innovations and “unoriginal genius” in the movement’s use of experimental language. Bernstein proceeds differently. He looks exclusively at the movement’s authorial personas and social networks. We learn more about interpersonal relationships, micro-trends, and Twitter followers, while close readings of the poetry are (for the most part) tossed aside. One chapter is simply a list, ordered by Google search results, of a given “set” of poets — seemingly the Norton Anthology-sanctioned favorites of 20th-century English poetry. Bernstein explains, “I’m not writing this book to deliver a who’s who in today’s poetry but to create the sensation of being lost in the burbling cauldron of emerging social formations.” Reading the book, one certainly gets the sensation of being lost in a cauldron of proper nouns — drowning in references, coteries, and constellations that hold sway in a poetic movement.

Bernstein applies the same standards to himself as he does to the poets and artists he critiques. He asks, “Are these notes just a work of neoliberal faddish drivel?” Then answers “yes and no.” The book tracks a perceived shift from Language Poetry’s Derridean post-structuralism to a fascination with Lacan (via Žižek) held by millennial poets. For Bernstein, this represents the difference between believing all truths are lies and believing all lies are true. His book works in threes: Language Poetry, Conceptual Poetry, and Post-Conceptual Poetry, which correspond to the successive disappearances of the author, the text, and the work. According to this model, relatively small poetry movements become stand-ins for larger cultural paradigm shifts, which Bernstein deftly identifies: Language Poetry is to Conceptual Poetry as post-structuralism is to queer theory as Madonna is to Lady Gaga.

The freshest observation in Notes concerns the disappearance of the artwork as a site of deconstructive radicalism, coupled with the disappearance of “work” itself. For Bernstein, the consumer has replaced the reader in today’s privileged interpretive communities. Close reading and analysis are over. This claim might resonate with mainstream critiques of American digital narcissism, such as Generation Me, The Narcissism Epidemic, and the Vanity Fair columns of Bret Easton Ellis. But Bernstein always seems to want to go back to Adorno’s negative dialectics, a desire that keeps him from ever actually vouching for any one aesthetic or ideological premise.

Bernstein returns most often to critics who disparage an art, or a style, or a coterie — only to surreptitiously praise some exceptional practitioner of that technique. He points to Keith J. Varadi, who “drags the major trends of post-conceptualism through the dirt only to grace a few poets, namely Andrew Durbin, as doing it better, or more worth our time.” Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter are called out for using the same sort of bait-and-switch with post-internet art. And then, in the negation of the negation, Bernstein lets us know that he has performed the very same moves in his book, and dares the reader to find them, which isn’t very hard. (He clearly plays favorites with Trisha Low, Lonely Christopher, and Cecilia Corrigan.) The redemptive aspect of Bernstein’s seeming hypocrisy is his transparency. He lays bare a true and tired formula through which practices at the “margins” of art appear more authentic and interesting than “boring” dominant art, until marginal art is brought back into the fold. “If you can start to get used to this formula, then you’re on your way to being an art world critic,” he advises.

Despite all the scuffles Notes has caused, one wonders if this book inevitably serves as a manifesto for Bernstein’s friends and family. Does it serve, for instance, the 89 Plus Foundation (Hans Ulrich Obrist’s collection of artists and poets born after 1989 including Durbin, Trisha Low, Steve Roggenbuck, Amalia Ulman, and Sophia Le Fraga) as an all-press-is-good-press advertisement? At the book’s New York launch, Low joked that Bernstein made its poets into straw men, but isn’t the straw man just a way of priming for the canon? Despite his literary “acting out,” perhaps Bernstein wants to sit at the post-internet lunch table.

Notes is, to use Bernstein’s own words, “chock full of product placements,” even if he chastises Durbin’s art for this:

In general, the Frank O’Hara 2.0 style does make for entertaining poetry but it is hard to call it innovative — which makes the praise from art world heavyweights like [Hans Ulrich] Obrist or Stuart Comer seem to be more about the fact that the references are more contemporary than anything else. And maybe this is Durbin’s greatest cunning: the book is chock full of product placements.

Durbin “gets it” too. Is Bernstein merely critiquing his own desires, like a jealous brother competing for institutional attention? His cranky awareness of the sometimes financial nature of relationships between poets (and between poets and their families) counter-intuitively redeems his criticism. His transparency, his openly excessive, privileged middle-class traumas, and his reference-crazed obsessions are not the same as the post-internet works he takes to task. However much they might be related.

“Do I, can I, love by and through critique alone?” Bernstein asks. And perhaps this highly critical text is actually a love letter — to his father, his sister, his closest friends, and even his (fr)enemies. But as he does this, he forges a skewed path, one where self-interrogation, however masturbatory, is preferred to sucking up. Just like those he critiques, he is about to publish his first book of poetry, confessional and urbane. But Bernstein cannot be seen as a take-the-middle-road Ashberyian (like the writer Dorothea Lasky, who gets a chapter in Notes), nor is he a queer maudit (like the writer Lonely Christopher, whom he champions). Instead he’s an overly precocious, erudite, critical young Jewish scholar who nonetheless can’t help but take up the lyre and sing, despite all of his attempts to demean the activities of the “poet.” Never one to remain locked in ironic disinterest, his sentimentality routinely slips, as in his bit on his sister, who took her life in 2008:

I was given her iPod when she died and played it all the time ... just another technological artifact that seemed to be stamped with her aura, and on it a final On-The-Go playlist. The song: Elizabeth Harper’s “Charles Bridge,” replete with enough over-determined and haunting “messages” to function as a kind of post-suicide note.

Bernstein seems to be trying to understand his sister and father throughout the book. What does it mean to have a post-feminist sister? What does it mean to have a postmodern father? What does it mean to have emotions around a postmodern father? Bernstein writes, “If Language poetry is full of ironic emotions, then conceptual/post-conceptual poetry is full of emotional irony. In Language poetry one would find ‘I’m sad’ firmly within ideological quotations. In conceptual/post-conceptual poetry one finds sadness in the exhaustion of compulsively produced ideological quotations.”

Bernstein never explores the facade of his own sadness as he says a Language poet might and he does not sadden the reader through banal repetition or excess as he says a Conceptual poet might. Notes reads as a post-postmodern work of millennial art that brings back the self. After the orgy, after the festival, after the carnival, after the trinkets, the self is still there for Bernstein, even if it is in the form of Low’s “not-not-me.”

Whatever Bernstein does, he does with an aggravated wink at his forced speech:

Am I, is this, neoliberal mise en abyme? Am I, is this, inscrutable 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? Doing this now, and questioning my ties to the name-of-the-father, aren’t I repeating what my father does when he questions his ties to the name-of-the-father (his father Herman who signified normative ’50s American culture)? By struggling with Kenny’s struggling with my father am I rebelling against anybody or arguing with a brother or myself? 

Sure, by questioning your ties to the name-of-the-father you are repeating your father who questions his ties to the name-of-the-father. But do alternatives exist? At least in this book, there is nothing outside the family. Like an obsessive, Notes so easily and inevitably lapses, and relapses into a hyper-vigilant cycle of admission and parody. Could this obsessive cycle possibly be a form of psychic redemption?

Bernstein ties himself to the mast as he passes the beautiful sirens of forgetting and transcendental escape. He does not claim that he is able to leave the post-internet prison house, tossing between concept and affect. Nor does he find some happy medium between the two. Instead, he chooses to analytically examine the excitement that comes with striking “a happy medium.” The critic appears happy because he is freed from the task of supporting the critiqued group. This means, paradoxically, that he must admit to his own dependence on the nuclear family and on his peers. I can’t help, especially given the autobiographical details provided, but see all this as sibling rivalry gone awry.

Bernstein’s “anxiety of influence” seems to traverse the Oedipal and risk fratricide. In this way, it bears resemblance to Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp — a disdainful yet informative and endearing analysis of coterie stylistics. He rushes through a canon that seems to have evolved and dissolved in the course of a few years. This makes for a high voltage read, avoiding the trappings of academic inertia and artworld valorizations. Ultimately, Bernstein’s first book clears the way for ensuing grotesque and complex portraits.


Cassandra Seltman is a writer and social worker. She studies psychoanalysis at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research in New York. She is the author of Palimpsest: Down (Inpatient Press).

LARB Contributor

Cassandra B. Seltman is a writer, psychotherapist, and psychoanalytic fellow at New York University. She is the author of a poetry collection, Palimpsest: Down (Inpatient Press, 2014). Her recent work can be found in the LA Review of Books, Flash Art International, Zeta, Logos Berlin, and DIVISION/Review.


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