The Poetry of the Mind, Dawg, Composing, 25/05/2017

So what is conceptual writing? I can actually say what it is with pretty reasonable confidence.

It begins with very careful writing. Paying attention to the precise meaning of every single word. But this isn’t the same as adhering to detailed definitions. Because the meaning of every word isn’t universal – it varies by context.

And I don’t mean in the relativist sense either, because I’m not talking about any absolute truth. I’m talking about how we understand facts.

So for the same reason that the terminology and central images of scientific disciplines differ – why a solid to a physicist isn’t the same kind of thing as a solid to a geologist – the meanings of our words will shift with our problems. That doesn’t make what we learn and discover while investigating these problems any less true.

Listen to the Earth, and see what you can find.
A scientific discipline isn’t the same as what it studies. Geology isn’t the same thing as the Earth, after all. But if you ask a geologist what he studies, he might say something different. He’ll have his eye on the Earth, but he’ll possibly say he studies geology.

But that’s the discipline – the framework of knowledge and body of facts. In a way, conceptual writing is about creating new frameworks of knowledge. Start with facts that you already know, knowledge you trust reasonably well. I work in philosophy, so let’s take established facts about the history of philosophy – texts and traditions.

Now experiment. Within reason, of course. Always within reason. But try to understand things in slightly different terms. Play with the ideas, try to make a new tradition. That’s what I’ve been doing when I’ve thought about the tradition that builds a political philosophy out of the ethical materialism of Machiavelli and Spinoza.

Plenty of other folks have done it too. Like Antonio Negri, Chantal Mouffe, Louis Althusser. Find your own way into those ideas, and let them guide your own development in thinking. Write a lot of different drafts, riffs, and reflections. Kind of like a blog that’s updated nearly every day for close to four years.

I’m still deep in the experimental stage – still wandering through different texts looking for more tools. But with each pass around the ideas, you refine them, find more subtlety and nuance, new features and new powers. Then when you feel you’re ready for something definitive, lay out the narrative in a general guide.

Then you fill it all in. Like an outline for a book that literally grows more and more detail as you write. Like it wasn’t written from beginning to end, but as a single block of exponentially expanding detail from every point.

The end product is this massively complicated, weirdly baroque figure. It might be a whole new way of thinking.


  1. I came here a few months ago for the Doctor Who, but the philosophy and historico-political musings keep me coming back, even if I can only grasp one sentence in ten.

    1. Well, thank you for staying. I hope it doesn't get too weird around here.