Kenneth Goldsmith

by Marcus Boon


Kenneth Goldsmith at the White House. May 11, 2011.

Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview.

Read a BOMB Web Extra unedited transcript of this conversation here.

Kenneth Goldsmith is a trickster for sure, not just because his work takes place on the crossroads between legal and illegal, between digital and real life, between word and image, but because he’s a man who wears a lot of hats, metaphorical and otherwise. He’s the founder of UbuWeb, the largest archive of avant-garde art on the Internet, and an incredibly rich and dense resource for anyone interested in the history of experimental writing, music, film, and visual arts. He was a radio DJ on WFMU for many years, producing a prank-heavy show of experimental horseplay called Unpopular Music . He’s a professor of creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses on what he calls “uncreative writing.” He’s a visual, sound, and text-based artist and poet, author of a number of remarkable books, including No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (1997), Day (2003), the radio-appropriation trilogy The Weather/Traffic/Sports (2005–08), and is currently working on a history of New York in the 20th century built around Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project . His new book, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, sets out much of the thinking behind these projects and proposes a manifesto for writing in the 21st century, while the recent collection Against Expression, co-edited with poetics scholar Craig Dworkin, brings together key literary texts that enact what Dworkin and Goldsmith call conceptual writing—writing built around specific processes of experimentation (i.e., concepts) rather than the demand for self-expression.

Interviewing Goldsmith is a slightly unnerving affair, even for someone such as myself, who’s known him for many years. Goldsmith has brought many of the techniques of appropriation-based visual art to literature, and then multiplied the power of these techniques again through his provocative use of digital technologies and the Internet. The result is that anyone speaking to Goldsmith knows that anything said to him might be appropriated, transformed into a text of some kind, and made part of one of Goldsmith’s strange and beautiful textual mirrors. I met Goldsmith in the West 20s Manhattan loft he shares with his wife, visual artist Cheryl Donegan, and sons, Finnegan and Cassius. The loft’s walls are covered with books, CDs, and vinyl—relics of the predigital age. The main apartment window, which used to offer a view of the wonderful Chelsea Flea Market, where Goldsmith acquired many of his treasures, now looks onto a vast apartment building. We talked for an hour before lunch. My recording device died halfway through the interview. Goldsmith’s didn’t. A small detail, but important, especially today, because as William S. Burroughs said, and Goldsmith understands very well, there’s “nothing here but the recordings.”

Marcus Boon A fair amount of your work is directly concerned with issues of community and a sort of conviviality that opens up a new kind of social space through revealing a common language that we prefer not to think about. Even a piece like Soliloquy, which I was just flipping through in the Against Expression anthology you co-edited—you’re taking something that would usually be kept private, your own everyday speech, and turning it into a highly public text available to anyone who cares to read it. Those who find themselves mentioned in the text might be scandalized, yet a kind of community and friendship seems to open up in that act of text making.

Kenneth Goldsmith I think so. My work is relational in that it starts a conversation between people, a conversation that, most times, is more interesting than the words printed on the page.

MB The conversation wouldn’t be possible without a ballsy or courageous act of putting yourself, and other people sometimes, on the line. That gesture opens up things that are actually worth talking about.

KG There is a lot at stake in these books. For example, Soliloquy—an unedited, 600-page book of every word I spoke for a week—cost me many friendships. Or Fidget—every move my body made over the course of one day—included having to describe my masturbating in detail. Even the marathon transcription of a day’s copy of the New York Times was all I did for an entire year, every day. Fantastic things to think and talk about, but not so great to read. But this conversation they generate oddly gives way to a sort of populism and an inclusiveness—everyone feels they can participate in it. For example, when I read at the White House in May I read three short pieces about the Brooklyn Bridge. The first was an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”; the second was an excerpt from Hart Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge poem, The Bridge; and the third was from my book Traffic, a transcription of 24 hours’ worth of one-minute traffic reports from 1010 WINS New York City news radio. The audience at the White House sat quietly through the Whitman and Crane—all the stuff that they’re supposed to like, which they can recognize as “poetry.” They treated it very reverentially. But when I began reading traffic reports they all got up and started screaming, applauding, and laughing! The whole room lit up when vernacular and mundane language entered the space, because it was something that they recognized, that they could relate to, even if it was droning traffic reports—something that in real life would cause anxiety. Now, of course my work was the most radical of the three because it was completely appropriated: there’s no emotion or pulling of the heartstrings; no higher metaphorical or spiritual message; and certainly nothing expresses my own interiority—which is something that traditional poetry is supposed to do. And yet, senators and Democratic Party honchos—even the President himself—were actually loving it! I thought to myself, Gee whiz, this is an amazingly rare collision of the avant-garde and the populist. It was very strange.

MB Yeah, that has been a trace throughout your work. I’m thinking of those large sculptures of giant books that you made in the mid-’80s, such as the solid-lead cast book of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, which was so heavy that it couldn’t be lifted, never mind stolen.

KG The Hoffman piece was about the idea of a ’60s revolution that literally never got off the ground, particularly during the Reagan years. But in the ’80s, a big conversation was the breakdown between high and low culture. I’m definitely a product of that time. Pop art—and Warhol in particular—was often a touchstone. When Chelsea Girls opened in several mainstream movie houses in New York in ’67, the lines were around the block to see it. It was a blockbuster, yet nothing happened: a split screen, and it goes on forever. Similarly, today, you have this return of a variant or mutant strain of pop art’s appeal—clothed in the avant-garde—rebounding in the digital. Christian Bök’s avant-Oulipian, constraint-based Eunoia—a five-chapter book, with each chapter written with words containing only one vowel—is the best-selling book of poetry ever in Canada; it even made the top-ten list in Britain. Christian finds that most people who read the book aren’t poets: they’re scientists, or teachers, or lawyers. These are extremely difficult texts, yet not difficult in modernist ways. Something is in the air.

MB That’s what I see with some of my students. For them, avant-garde mostly means unpopular, or something that doesn’t address itself directly to a mass of people. That seems like a categorical error.

KG It seems very old-fashioned, the high/low split. You’re back to Schoenberg, you know. Modernist purity had a very short shelf life: When you actually look at 12-tone music, it’s got no legs; you don’t find it anywhere other than horror films. What took off was the hybrid impurity of minimalism—the tonic, the melodic, the repetitive, the rock-based—which produces avant-garde works that are at once difficult and accessible. Any of Steve Reich’s early works, for instance, which use beats, electronics, and tape loops. It was hard to resist.

MB I was thinking earlier about this quote from Adorno that I used in my book In Praise of Copying. He says the problem with montage is that it’s not capable of destroying the elements of which the montage is actually made and, therefore, it remains subservient to existing social and political structures even when, like in German Dada, it seems to be against them. I guess he’s thinking of Schoenberg as an example of someone who actually tried to reconfigure the elements themselves, with mixed results. The minimalists found a different way out of that problem. They weren’t just generically reprogramming the individual elements out of which culture was made, they were creating radical experiments with the arrangement of elements that were more complex than a modernist piece of montage could ever be.

KG I think so. By (re)mixing traditions and subjecting them to a mathematical rigor, the minimalists expanded and enriched the Western classical vocabulary to include trance music, avant-jazz, all strains of Eastern tradition, West African drumming, and so forth. Schoenberg, by comparison, had a narrow view of what Western classical music could be. Another thing I loved about minimalism was its duration and stasis, something that conceptual writing—writing generated by an idea that is often more interesting than the resultant text—attempts to do with words. Listening to a reading of traffic reports sounds like minimalist music; every ten minutes the traffic has backed up more at the Lincoln Tunnel and has shrunk at the Holland. Things move glacially.

MB How do you deal with the problem of specific languages? You work in English, and one of the promises of the Internet is a sort of global language. Yet we are stuck with English as the dominant language on the Internet. And then there are all these other languages that remain unintelligible and unintegrated into global society.

KG Oddly, I don’t think I would have the career I have if I didn’t work in English. Writing in English gives you a great advantage. Everyone around the world can read your work. The downside is that you generally can’t read theirs. Many of my Scandinavian peers can’t read the work of their peers in neighboring countries. I suppose that the good thing about conceptual writing is that it’s not supposed to be read anyway. So if you get the idea of what a writer is trying to do, you understand the book, regardless of the language in which it is written. So, in a way, this type of writing that’s predicated upon not reading actually circumvents the problems of translation, as well as notions of primary, secondary, and tertiary languages.

MB That’s something that the post–World War II avant-gardes were concerned with in the beginning.

KG Absolutely. Think of Esperanto. In the latter sections of Pound’s Cantos, there’s almost no English on the page; instead, there’s bits of Latin, Chinese, mathematical symbols, lists of currencies, phonetic spelling, slang, Greek, Arabic, and so forth. And today, some of the most interesting writing uses combinatory languages, such as Caroline Bergvall’s trilingual pieces or her new book, which is based on the multilingual vagaries of Middle English. I also think of someone like Anne Tardos, who seems like she speaks—and writes—in six languages at once. Or Mónica de la Torre’s now famous provocation at the Rethinking Poetics conference last year at Columbia University when, in the middle of her presentation, she broke out, full-on, for about ten minutes entirely in Spanish, leaving all those who pay lip service to multilingualism and diversity angry because they couldn’t understand what she was saying. But these multilingual writers often don’t expect you to understand all those languages. That would be too limiting. Instead, they open up other dimensions—ones we generally ignore—of what words can be: material, phonetic, visual. To me, that’s quite exciting.

MB A direct response.

KG Yes, it’s back to Pound’s idea of the “radiant node or cluster” or Beckett’s “no symbols where none intended.” A direct response, immediately understood, combined with the need not to read the work but to think about it. And what’s happened is that conceptual writing has become the first international writing movement since concrete poetry (another movement that was based not on reading, but on seeing). And of course if you look at Apollinaire’s visual poem “Il Pleut,” with words streaming down from the sky, you immediately understand the poem without having to understand the French.

MB Some of the most interesting projects in the class I’m teaching right now online at York University were done by students using programs like Google Translate and playing with this movement from Mandarin to English and back to Mandarin.

KG If the tools are there, it’d be insane for writers not to use them. Yet there’s huge swaths of MFA-produced literary fiction that act like such tools and ideas don’t exist. Somebody recently said about Jonathan Franzen that he is the “greatest novelist . . . of the 1950s.” (laughter) We’re at this moment of great possibility and experimentation because of the tools that are sitting on our own desktop, yet many prefer to still act like “original geniuses” instead of “unoriginal geniuses,” a term Marjorie Perloff recently coined. Her idea is that due to changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of genius—a romantic isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination.

MB I almost feel like mistranslation might be more important to a global civilization than good translation, since it is an inevitable condition of our efforts to engage with people from radically different linguistic and geographical backgrounds.

KG I actually think that translation is not even the issue; it might be displacement. What De la Torre, Tardos, and Bergvall teach us is that conventional notions of textual understanding and translation have been disrupted by new modes of decontextualization. Torrents of decontextualized matter arrive on your desktop without warning, meaning, or context, for example, in the form of email attachments. Someone sends you, say, a JPEG or video, which is often ripped out of its original context and ends up smack-dab in the middle of your screen. You can’t understand it; you’ll never understand it. Instead, you have to deal with it on its terms, to live with it, accept it. This is radical disjunction on a global scale.

MB That reminds me of the shock of WikiLeaks. Until last year, it was just unimaginable that we could have an archive that was downloadable containing, say, the entire security data of a particular nation-state; that it could suddenly land on your desk.

KG There’s so much of it that no one can really deal with it. The media’s job was to tease out the “best” parts of it. In this way, they’re not acting differently from conceptual writers who pose more as information managers than they do as content generators, which has always been assumed to be the traditional role of the writer.

MB Let’s talk about your Against Expression and Uncreative Writing books a little. What kind of reaction do you get to the ideas in them? You’re teaching them at UPenn—

KG —And I spoke about them at the White House in front of Michelle Obama.

MB Right, I watched it. Did you get any response from people at that reading? Did anyone say anything?

KG No. It’s not really about response there.

MB Billy Collins didn’t lunge at you?

KG No. Actually Billy Collins made almost the identical point that I did, albeit coming from a completely different angle. He said something like, You don’t really have your own voice. You get your voice through deep reading of other people’s work. I agreed with him completely, but the difference being, I’m not interested in finding my own voice; I’m happy to take someone else’s.

MB It seems like that whole Language versus confessional poets debate—is it language or the individual personality that creates a poem?—that’s dominated the poetry scene in recent decades has ceased to apply today.

KG Yeah. That argument gets blown away when the digital enters the picture. This is the real break with modernism and the 20th century. In Uncreative Writing I say that with the invention of the camera, painting was forced to change its course in order to survive, hence Impressionism, abstraction, and modernism. Similarly, we’re at a moment where we’ve encountered a technology that forces writing to reimagine its mission in the digital age.

MB But like you say in the book, writing can’t simply mimic the gestures that painters developed in response to new technologies: the capturing of time in the painting, the move to abstraction, the focus on the materiality of paint or canvas or painting itself as action. So where does it go?

KG Language becomes mimetic; it becomes distributed. It’s not what we’re writing, rather it’s how we reframe and rejigger the plethora of language that already exists. These textual manipulations actually become the content of much of the new conceptual writing.

MB I look at the phrase ”against expression” and think we can’t really get rid of expression. Any linguistic endeavor, whether it’s someone sitting in their bedroom writing something out by hand or whether it’s some anonymous spam email with a bunch of words just thrown together literally at random . . . ultimately the experience of language has to do with expressivity. It can’t just be distribution. At a certain point what makes spam interesting is that the conjunction of those randomly chosen words actually shocks me or has some effect on me.

KG Yeah, writing—the smallest morpheme of language, that’s what modernism taught us—is deeply associative. For example, take the letter A: it could be the top grade; it could be the title of Andy Warhol’s wonderful book a, a novel; it could be the life work of Louis Zukofsky; it could be Hester Prynne’s shame, in The Scarlet Letter. There are all these associations with just one, simple letter form. When Abstract Expressionist painters were trying to excise semantic meaning from their work, they used geometry, a vocabulary they assumed to be affectless and neutral. But, of course, geometry is not innocent either. An Adolph Gottlieb red circle has all sorts of associations: a stoplight, a ball, the Japanese flag, the planet Mars, or the sun setting. Writers try too hard; expression, content, and meaning are all embedded into every bit of information we move. So “against expression,” in this case, means a reinvestigation—an upending—of conventional notions of expression, which have become so hackneyed and predictable that we’ve got to embrace opposites—uncreativity, unoriginal genius—in order to breathe some life into what has devolved into bankrupt concepts.

MB Do you think you can get rid of subjectivity? What you’re talking about downplays the importance of the subject’s intention, the subject’s intentional relationship to language as an intimate or personal experience, but subjectivity is really interesting, right?

KG You can’t avoid it. What I choose to appropriate and reframe and distribute all expresses my own subjectivity as much as anything I could possibly write. How could it be otherwise? You go back to Duchamp: every object he chose to appropriate expressed his own sensibility, subjectivity, and taste, hence the success of his approach. It’s both deeply personal and deeply impersonal at the same time. I strive for the same balance.

MB So it’s that kitsch version of subjectivity that gets taught in certain poetry workshops that you want to get rid of. You suggest then that there’s another type of subjectivity that we haven’t actually heard much about so far—it has a different relationship to language or to expression and is maybe coming to the fore now.

KG Well, it’s the programmer’s subjectivity. Christian Bök says that in the future no poet will be able to write without knowing the computer programming language Perl. Bök feels that conceptual writing is just an intermediary step between humans and machines, which will ultimately yield to a robo-poetics, where machines write poetry for other machines, thereby bypassing the human element altogether. And Christian says that since poetry lacks any real readership among humans anyway, let’s let the robots have it. I find humor and irony in what he says, but I think he’s deadly serious.

MB To me there’s a fear of human subjectivity involved in that kind of machine-based expression—I feel it in Christian’s work. At the same time, what makes his writing work is that there’s an incredible amount of pathos to it. It’s there all the more strongly precisely because he denies that it’s there. Humor as well; maybe that’s another thing . . . Watching the YouTube clip of your White House appearance, it was striking how much people were laughing when you were reading the Traffic excerpts. Actually, a lot of your work is funny in that way. It’s involved in humor, but are you trying to be funny? Do you like that people get off on your work through laughter?

KG I don’t like conventional comedy. I find it cloying and manipulative. Instead, I’d prefer the absurdity of Andy Kaufman reading the entirety of The Great Gatsby or the pranks of Candid Camera, Coyle & Sharpe, or Sacha Baron Cohen. To me, these are situationist-like interventions into daily life, very similar to what I try to do with my writing: reframing or disrupting our normal ways of interacting with the quotidian uses of language in order to make us aware of its profundity and beauty. We don’t pay attention to what is right under our noses.

One of the epigraphs for Soliloquy says, “If every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard.” We produce so much language but never stop to quantify it. And this tendency toward linguistic abundance is ratcheted up infinitely in the digital age, when all our media is constructed of language. A photograph today is comprised entirely of language. Just think of what happens when a JPEG arrives in the email improperly as a mess of code instead of as an image. It’s the identical materials with which Shakespeare wrought his sonnets, although in a completely different order. It could be reconfigured back into sensible poetry or even back to a cogent photograph. This is quite radical, the idea that images, films, and sounds are all made up of language.

MB I was thinking about Maurice Blanchot’s book The Infinite Conversation, written back in the 1960s. He begins by writing about exhaustion and says that we’re really too tired at this point to produce master words and master works. The era of work and production is over, so now what are we going to do? On the one hand we’re swimming in this sea of abundance but, on the other, there’s something utterly exhausting about it.

KG You hear this all the time: we’re drowning in the digital deluge. We’re up to our eyeballs in information and we can’t take it anymore. Too many blogs, too many Facebook pages, too much discussion, too many Tweets. But instead of bemoaning what is inevitable, many poets are seeing this condition as an opening, a celebration, a new linguistic terrain, raw materials out of which they’re mining an entirely new literature. If you’re a writer, you have to acknowledge this change in environment; the material with which you’re working is running the entire world. To me, it’s joyous, gluttonous. We’re language hoarders, creating epic projects, mirroring the gargantuan scale of textuality on the Internet.

MB Do you still feel an obligation to work, though? With Day, for example, you talk about the physical labor of transcribing—is it still about the obligation of work or is there something else that replaces work and is more interesting?

KG Day was done over a decade ago. The physical work was part of the piece and my transition from being a gallery artist to a writer, hence the emphasis on process and work. Today, however, I’ve become comfortable enough with just an idea. When I recently redid Day and transcribed the 9/11 copy of the New York Times (I called it The Day), most of that was just swiped off of the Times’s website. Had someone emailed me an entire text file of the day’s newspaper, it would have been fine with me to republish that as a book. But again, I think we spend so much of our time moving information from one place to another—copying, cutting, pasting, cc’ing, downloading, backing up, etcetera—that I begin to see that as a form of writing. I recall seeing a cartoon of a man physically exhausted by downloading X amount of gigabytes. That seemed to sum up how my relationship to work or physical labor has shifted over the years. Or if you look at Christian Bök’s Xenotext—where he encodes a poem into a strand of DNA—it’s an intense amount of work, but all of it is being done by a machine crunching trillions of possibilities in order to write the best poem possible. We will be judged in the future by the machines which we set up more than by the product they produce. Christian’s genius is not in the text—formally, Xenotext will not be a remarkable poem—but rather in the program he wrote to construct the poem. This is conceptual literature.

MB But the OncoMouse or Dolly, the transgenic sheep, is an instantiation of a concept as well. What the machine does will still be a matter of concern.

KG It depends on the field. In genetics, the machine can have real-world ethical results. Poetry and art are laboratories where even unsavory, often unthinkable, ethical ideas can be tested without any real harm. UbuWeb, for example, is an ethical hive, a bee’s nest—

MB —a monster!

KG When artists are held to the same sort of ethical and moral standards that politicians are, it’s a very dangerous situation for art.

MB But art since romanticism has been concerned, in some way, with having an impact on the real world. I agree traditional ethics doesn’t make any sense, but . . .

KG Art’s a-ethical space is its beauty. We need to preserve that—the possibility of behaving very badly in art, because it doesn’t exist anywhere else. I’ve said this elsewhere: If I raised my kids the way I wrote my books I would’ve been thrown in jail a long time ago.

MB Do you compartmentalize the freedom? Is it totally separate from everyday life? With the Internet, there’s this incredible bleed between the screen and reality too, and that’s something that people are playing with, increasingly.

KG Assuming various identities on the web—which would be seen as being fraudulent in “meatspace”—is very healthy. With much less commitment than it takes in meatspace, we can project various personas with mere stokes of a keyboard. In this chat room, I’m a woman; on this blog, I’m a political conservative; in this forum, I’m a middle-aged golfer. And I never get called out for not being authentic or real. On the contrary, I am addressed as “madam” or “you right-wing asshole.” I’ve come to expect that the person I think I’m addressing on the Internet isn’t really “that person.” So, for me, not being “true” to myself, or assuming voices and positions that are not mine, can give me small windows during my day into a freedom in a society that allows me very little. I go back to John Cage, who was an anarchist. People would say things like, John Cage! You’re an anarchist but you pay taxes! And John Cage would respond, Yes, I’m an anarchist, but the only way I can continue to do my work is to pay my taxes. There was a sense of compromise in order to gain a window of freedom. Of course, at that time in the ’70s and ’60s in many places around the world, due to political repression—even today—Cage wouldn’t have been permitted to do his work. So we make our compromises.

 

—Marcus Boon is the author of The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs and, most recently, In Praise of Copying. He is Associate Professor of English at York University in Toronto. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

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Conceptual writing
Appropriation
Avant-garde
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Subjectivity
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Fall 2011
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