All Writing is Conceptual

Tom McCarthy, Transmission and the Individual Remix: How Literature Works, 2012

“But all this — Blanchot, Barthes, or any other dubious French character whose name starts with B — is theory,” certain voices might cry out at this point. “Writing should be natural, spontaneous, not underpinned by dogma.” It’s an argument that has led my own work, in the past, to be described in the past as “conceptual” — as though it had gone down a certain path, entered a thorny, awful region, a vast realm of boundless chaos, the sensible, productive alternative to which would be to not have any theory, to just write. As an argument, it’s stunningly naïve. All writing is conceptual; it’s just that it’s usually founded on bad concepts. When an author tells you that they’re not beholden to any theory, what they usually mean is that their thinking and their work defaults, without even realizing it, to a narrow liberal humanism and its underlying — and always reactionary — notions of the (always “natural” and preexisting, rather than constructed self), that self’s command of language, language as vehicle for “expression,” and a whole host of fallacies so admirably debunked almost 50 years ago by the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.

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