Credit is a conceptual work. It is a book, but, as the name implies, it is also an abstraction, something more promised than produced. Credit is Mathew Timmons’ 800-page curation of his financial situation circa 2007 to 2009, when credit flowed, and then, naturally and inevitably, ebbed. Credit is thus necessarily dialectical as the tide, and is thus divided into two sections, “Credit” and “Debit.” For the “Credit” section, Timmons reproduced twenty-six credit card offers extended to him over the course of about three weeks, in the order of their offering. All names and addresses were redacted. For the “Debit” section, Timmons reproduced all dunning letters he received in a separate two week period. All the information except names and addresses were redacted. All redacted information appears in two appendices, enabling full reparation. Credit was originally conceived as a postering project. But Timmons had no money. As many good Americans before (and alongside) him, Timmons responded to his lack of negotiable funds by spending on the come, designing a big and expensive book-idea, one tailor-made to the limits of page and price permitted by print on demand. For although the publisher of Credit is Timmons’ own Blanc Press, it is physically produced by the popular print on demand site, Lulu.com, and can be had for $199. And so the means of Credit’s production directly comport with the basic capitalist tenet of supply and demand. Put another way, Credit, like the offer thereof, only exists once you accept its offer.
But there’s really no point to reading, or owning, Credit, except the purely consumptive point of reading or owning Credit. It is worth noting in this regard that according to Timmons, three copies have sold to date. Therefore, Credit, unlike most books, remains valuable only to the degree it remains unread and unowned. Its worth decreases with the number of copies sold, and, by the same token, its means of production, generally considered the most democratic model of publication/distribution, is a way of maintaining the book’s status as rarified commodity. There’s no print run of a thousand, bleating softly in their boxes, there’s not even a hundred cellophaned copies waiting patiently to be passed on to those with time and money on their hands.
To manufacture Credit, Timmons scanned the documents, redacting them the old-fashioned way via black marker. Mistakes in the OCR are left intact. This is a sloppy conceptualism, one content to remain, in some senses half-baked. Not conceptually, but materially. Less pristine fetish object, more object of conspicuous consumption, and one that is manifestly about the pure fetishization of conspicuous consumption. And so Credit is a conceptual success by virtue of its excess.
Conceptual writing has been defined by Kenneth Goldsmith as writing in which “the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.” Craig Dworkin wrote that the test of this writing is “no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.” To these definitions, Robert Fitterman and I have added that conceptualism is a response to textual excess, and that conceptual writing is necessarily allegorical writing. In a 2004 essay, Hal Foster described archival (visual) art works as allegorical in both the sense of being melancholic and incomplete, and in the “strict” literary sense of “featur[ing] a subject astray in an ‘underworld’ of enigmatic signs that test her.” Timmons, whose book is arguably more art object than text object, is also overtly caught up in a play of excessive signs: he is credit worthy and a credit risk. His credit limit merits extension. He is over his credit limit. He has good credit. He does not want to hurt his credit. What is his credit history? What will his credit look like later? The allegory here is present-tensed and bloated and gleefully incomplete. Unlike Benjamin’s allegory of ruin, there is no ancestral epistemological whole to miss or mist over. Unlike Foster’s interpretation of archival art, there’s no sadness in the slinging of sign, for signs, as we all know, exist only to be slung. The allegory in conceptualism takes as given that signs sign, but cannot sign off. Not fully, anyway. Here, the question of signing becomes moreover acute as it is the act of signing that signals acceptance of an offer of credit, and creates the status of debtor. The signature, according to Agamben, is that which effects what it expresses. The signature serves as voucher for the sign: it (ac)credits the sign with signification. And this is how ontologies are made.
For just as a voucher is an act of credit, so is vouching. Timmons collected thirty blurbs for the book, including blurbs from Craig Dworkin, Rodrigo Toscano, and me. I did not read the book, look at a manuscript or pdf, or have any textual interaction beyond Timmons explaining the project in an email solicitation. It was the concept of Credit that I blurbed, just as it was the idea of Vanessa Place that was wanted for the blurb. My surplus value attested to the surplus value promised by the project. Similarly, most of the blurbs, mine included, suffered from their own lexical excess in the form of puns, digressions, over-use of exclamation points, plagiarisms, and other linguistic wallowings. This was in part due to playing with the idea of the project, and in part inspired by the excess latent in the topic. The credit given Credit was given in the sense of an inscription, like a film credit, like signing-off while signing-on. We did not credit Credit, but credited its credit. So that all parts of the apparatus of this book project allegorize the project of the book: blurbs are not blurbs, but are as integral to the book’s existence as its spine. More so, for the book exists more as a thing talked about than as a thing in-itself.
I have written before about the radical mimesis in much conceptual work, and this is almost that. Timmons pulls the punch a bit via his redactions, which were a by-product of the postering notion. An attempt at public privacy. As is, the erasures can be read (as Timmons would have you read them) as hiding the salient “juicy bits”: relative to the plus side of the ledger, the numbers are sexy, i.e., points of concentrated interest. How much is someone potentially worth? As interest-generator, that is. More interesting to me is that what Timmons suggests through his redactions is the manifestation of lack. Not in the more obvious way of individuation being less salient to corporate finance than numbers or of individuation being more interesting to fiscal failure than numbers, or even the surface discourse here about the public versus the private, and how our private parts have become financial, i.e., that the black bar no longer hides the phallus in an pornography but is the phallus in an economy. But in the way that the fact of a redaction suggests a hidden knowledge that may be recouped—which Timmons overtly concedes, having provided this knowledge in the appendices. This puts Credit as a piece framed in the Lacanian discourse of the hysteric: the subject, its truth forever hidden from itself, suppresses the fact of its desire as it asks the master, “what do you want from me?” But in this, the hysteric reveals the master’s lack of knowledge, for the shifting answers of the master betray the fact that the master does not know: more credit, less credit, payment, payment deferred. The dialectical movement of the book is in this way complete. It has to be, for capitalism itself is famously built on a dialectic. But the difference is the gap, the missing bits and the too-many pieces. For dialectics have become fundamentally undialectical: there is no synthesis per se, no Kantian reason d’être nor Heideggerian über-ergo but rather a freezing of the dialectical movement itself. This is the shipwreck of Mallarmé, a shipwreck necessarily bottled on the page. Stuck in the suck of its ebbs and flows.
I have gone through these interpretive machinations in part to explain Credit, in part because I suspect the reading of this kind of work differs from the reading of most poetry. I’ve not quoted from the book because there’s no line I’m interested in, no text I care to contextualize. Or rather, it’s all contextualization, and nothing but. In conversation, Timmons has described the language in Credit as “fascinating,” and it may well be. The point is, I don’t care. I don’t care about the particulars of the language used in offers made by banks too big to fail or how deep my neighbor sits in the hole. As fond as I might be of Mathew Timmons, or as much as I might relish his suffering, he is no more the subject of credit than he is its author. Certain kinds of conceptual works exist in a perceptual bubble. You can’t engage with them, not directly, for any attempt to engage directly sucks you onto the abyss of textual excess. (The abyss, as I’ve also said before, is now a mountain. Benjamin and Nietzsche stared into the chasm and decried the lack. We, punier still, look up at piles of the stuff.) What they do is instigate by their instantiation, not by the content of their content. Unlike most writing, they are lesser containers of any particular epiphany or exegesis. In this sense, Credit occupies the position of a conceptual art object, existing as a point of origin rather than terminus. And while many may argue that the best writing does just that, this is not the best writing. This is the fact of something that has been stated. As in a credit statement. As in a statement of arrears. It does not matter what the content of these statements are because they are essentially and merely speech acts, so to speak. They trigger status and attendant discourse. Some of these kinds of work, while seeming narcissistic (such as Goldsmith’s Soliloquy) or banal (such as Robert Fitterman’s Sprawl) or the sort of art mocked in post-war New Yorker cartoons as the kind my kid could make, serve and defeat the primarily altruistic purpose of creating more texts, such as this one. For that matter, Timmons has not seen a color copy of his book. He doesn’t know what it looks like. But he does know what it does.