UbuWeb UbuWeb Papers Open Letter: Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics

Sampling the Culture: 4 Notes Toward a Poetics of Plundergraphia and on Kenneth Goldsmith's Day
Jason Christie

Kenneth Goldsmith's EPC Author Page
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Kenneth Goldsmith in UbuWeb Contemporary

"Many artists refused to join the church of formalist purity, however, and continued to paint representational pictures, even pictures of the most retrograde subject of all, the human figure. Yet many of those who did so still thought they were, as Ezra Pound urged, making it new" (Goldsmith 691).

1. Plunderphonia > Plundergraphia

In Chris Cutler's analysis of John Oswald's CD, Plunderphonic, he mentions that "plagiarism ... has today emerged both as a standard procedure and as a consciously self-reflexive activity, raising vexed debates about ownership, originality, copyright, skill and cultural exhaustion" (138). Cutler defines a theory of plunderphonics in which he advocates artists to assume a plaigiaristic attitude toward copyright-protected or previously published material in the pursuit of a new and unique sonic art object. He sketches a plunderphonia that situates plunderphonic art practice as cultural critique. I'd like to extend Cutler's theory of plunderphonia to literature and articulate a plundergraphia that treats words in an equivalent manner to how he describes Oswald's use of sound: sound (and words) in the public domain are objects and therefore plunderable (138).

Kenneth Goldsmith's Day is the product of a process similar to Oswald's plundering of music in that both manipulate entire samples of copyright-protected material; they both put the original through a transformation yet are careful to maintain the integrity of the original despite the alteration of form; and both challenge ownership, copyright, etc., through this act of plunder. Goldsmith appropriates an issue of the New York Times to transform it into a book, while Oswald mines popular songs and manipulates them to produce wholly new sonic objects. The effects are similar, the practices are similar, and yet the process is slightly different. I believe it is therefore necessary to define a praxis of plunder distinct from and yet similar to Oswald's plunderphonics that focuses on words instead of sound as manipulable material. I offer 'plundergraphia' as a term that applies to words in the same way plunderphonia applies to sounds.1

I believe it is also necessary at the outset to demonstrate how plundergraphia is distinct from plagiarism and reference, and shares little more than intention with found poetry.2 Plagiarism requires a person to desire to conceal a source for his or her benefit and assume ownership of a previously published source. The act of reference requires that a person credit a source in his or her attempt to benefit his or her argument through an invocation of support either by importing a voice of authority or that of a contemporary. Found poetry appropriates previously conceived material into new arrangements but is still dependent upon the final product as a product. Plundergraphia is a more general praxis that situates words in a new context where they are charged by their trans-formation into an entirely different context than that of their original one. The distinction between plundergraphia and found poetry is that plundergraphia's political impact is in the act more than in the product, while found poetry is still somewhat dependent upon the final product with a trace of politics supporting the activity. Plundergraphia could be a type of found poetry, but the distinction would be that the work that is found has to be retained in its entirety without anything else being added to it.3 Tom Phillips' epic found project, A Humument, and Ronald Johnson's treatment of Milton, Radi os, both suggest a plundergraphic attitude toward an original source but their transformations of the original distort it beyond legibility into an entirely new creative expression. Goldsmith and Oswald, although distorting the original, do not do so to the extent that the original source is unrecognizable.

2. Kicking Lacan: the objet d'art, simulacra, the aura, and The Real

"Of all the processes and productions which have emerged from the new medium of recording, plunderphonics is the most consciously self-reflexive; it begins and ends only with recordings, with the already played" (Cutler 141, original emphasis).

Plunderphonics/graphics is the art form of copies, of "the already played," where art objects dance in our imagination, pretending toward the Phallus yet deliriously never authenticating an experience of the Real. What we can realize through such a ludic praxis is that the Real is now something different than a reality full of discrete objects to which we think we've been annexed through language or symbology. Instead the Real is the annexation to a world of copies. We live in the immateriality of language, in a highly combinable space strewn with indeterminate pulsions we turn into arrows and objects. We mistake language as distinct from that which it posits. Simulacra are real and all that is real is simulacrum. The Real is always a fabrication dependent upon socially determined variables. In this case objects are only unique if that uniqueness is a characteristic intrinsic to their creation, if that is the specialness of their identity. It is a characteristic of production that it is now always possible to make several copies of any one thing. And so, the idea has become the only locus of originality. The bastion of the art object's aura, Benjamin's aura of originality, surrounds the concept. The necessary conclusion, the realization and materialization of the concept in a concrete form, is nothing more than ephemeral detritus fallen from a unique and insubstantial object. We moved the aura from an illumination of praxis through techné into our minds where it only shines around the most unique of ideas. What we get in the conceptual art object made manifest is an echo. We still privilege uniqueness and originality but our definitions of how these terms apply to an art object has changed to suit our reality. The aura has no place in our everyday experience and the wake of its withdrawal into thought and immateriality only highlights the ordinariness and drabness of our received cultural surroundings: concrete, functionality, lawns, gardens, etc. If our reality is entirely constructed from simulacra, then DJs and artists such as Goldsmith manipulate facets of culture with a facility heretofore only intimated in modernist and postmodernist art practices without succumbing to the mind-numbing castration anxieties of our previous generations. They dramatize the process of the Real in their annexing practice. The aura that would have existed around the cultural products they manipulate now enshrouds the activity of manipulation, and in this case, the act of plunder.

3. Mocking art news

By transforming the quotidian and banal information in the newspaper into the legitimating form of the book, Goldsmith plays DJ with our understanding of the cultural relevance of words. The daily newspaper is meant to be a temporary repository for words employed in the service of informing people about potentially relevant events. Goldsmith forces these words into a perpetual anamnesis by publishing an issue of the newspaper in a book format; the words enact a constant haunting; dead words archived as ghosts with mock historical relevance: "a great weight of dead music to press upon the living" (Cutler 138). Reading a newspaper in some archival form such as microfiche or in its original form in an archive has different cultural connotations than encountering a daily newspaper transformed into a book. Microfiche is a form that isn't fraught with the preciousness historically associated with the book. And reading the newspaper in its original form in an archive touches on anamnesis but only as a mechanism of nostalgia or as a facet of historical research. A book is always anamnestic since the words contained exist with each reading as information bound to, but not intrinsically dependant upon, a historical moment the way a newspaper is inextricably bound to the day it was published even if brought into the present. This paradoxical point, this imminent anamnesis, is exactly the productive element of Goldsmith's transformation of the daily news into literature.

The DJ samples a historical moment and incorporates it into a new framework; the DJ transforms dead sonic material, discarded, and disembodied sound into a living moment. And thus, DJing relies on anamnesis to establish a textural and immaterial field charged with the potential for cultural critique. For example, the importation of an element of music from Bach into a Drum 'n' Bass track causes a juxtaposition that renders the division between high and low art both vital and moot. Goldsmith vexes this bifurcation by transforming the newspaper into literature. Like the DJ, his act of plunder offers a cultural critique of the objet d'art by incorporating a low art form (the newspaper) into a high art form's vessel (the book). Both Goldsmith and the DJ demonstrate that the boundary between high and low art is semi-permeable at best, and can be traversed in either direction. The idea that the newspaper is a low art form pertains to our use and valuation of words. Some readers value the efforts of journalists and may even reward a journalist's hard work by clipping a well-written or especially relevant article or column to place on the fridge or in a scrapbook, but generally the words in a newspaper are viewed by a reader as temporary, utile, proximal and ultimately disposable. We have a very different valuation system for words housed within books. Books assume the sacrosanct status of the art gallery, they assume the vaulted architecture of a place of worship ready for the willing spirit; this is especially true of books we nestle into the category of literature. These words are not disposable4.

4. High Art / Low Art: sexing the slash or what is a bifurcation good for, anyway?

Goldsmith invites the quotidian dispensability of the newspaper into the sacrosanct space of the book, of literature, or of the art book; he opens the art galleries' doors to lowly proles; he fills the sanctuary of the place of worship with the street noise of traffic, and thereby offers us a glimpse of our continuing dependence on the categorical division of high and low art. In this way, Goldsmith offers literature the same cultural challenge leveled at Art by Warhol and Fluxus at mid-20th century and by Dada artists in the early decades of the 20th century. Warhol and Fluxus challenged the societal fetish around commodities and the divorce of labour from product; it became impossible to experience the mark or trace of the individual presence as a producer of products with the onset of assembly lines and hyperautomated processes in factories, not to mention the idea of celebrity as an insubstantial and eminently desirable product. Warhol and Fluxus relished the auraless objet d'art where an artist's style got offered up in place of techné to determine the objet d'art's appeal. Function and quality gave way to fashion and quantity. Our stance toward words hides a continuation of the distinction between high and low art. With the observation that language, words, is, are, material, that meaning is a commodity, a product, several of the writers associated with L= writing make it clear that our relationship to language-use, to words, is not free from ideological baggage: words in their use become equivalent to the soupcan. Goldsmith's transformation of a seemingly simple use of words as bearers of news, as disposable razors, perpetuates an ideological crisis below that of a manipulation of content: our dismissal of words as temporary containers for meaning is wedded to a consumerist resistance to recycling as a social program and a societal love for commodities: we love to hold things. Books are the inheritors of our most modernist tendencies, specifically that of reifying language or art, of framing literature and art as a sacrosanct space distinct from but relating to ordinary, quotidian experience.

The idea of transporting a quotidian and time-sensitve object such as the newspaper into a posterity-ridden space like that of the book challenges our sense of utility. Words are meant to be read. Words don't have expiration dates. So, a newspaper that is two days old is already redundant by the simple fact of the two intervening days' issues of the newspaper that are each supposedly up-to-date up to their respective dates of issue. Books are meant to blanket the social aporia generated by newspapers' attempt at total coverage and provide a retrospective, albeit revisionist picture of a given historical moment. Books are meant to be read at any time, irrespective of 'when' they are written or published. But the deceptively honest question remains: how fruitful is it to read a newspaper as a book when it is continuously more and more out-of-date? Should such a book be read at all? I realize to some people it is almost sacrilegious to suggest that a book should not be read, that a book's function is other than to be read, but the question nonetheless remains. Duchamp challenged our notions of art and utility, of the height of the objet d'art's preciousness and the lowness of the objet quotidienne with his readymades. Goldsmith's Day functions similarly to Duchamp's Fountain in that it is still a newspaper as much as Duchamp's Fountain is still a urinal. Both are functional. But who wants to piss in Duchamp's fountain? Maybe the text of Goldsmith's Day exists otherwise than as a semantic outlay provided by a reader's dutiful reading of the words contained within the book (or on the back cover)? His text exists much like a DJ's mix: in the ephemeral space of experience, the concept, disassociated from but reliant on objects, created in transformation and left there, haunting the annex of the Real, created through an act of plunder, created by sampling the culture. And the book is an independent artefact of the process, a urinal, a recording.


1 There is a musical performance piece by Mark Applebaum called "Plundergraphic." I wish to make clear that I am using the term to describe a writing practice and not to discuss the piece by Mark Applebaum. Please see http://www.markapplebaum.com for more information on his work.

2 William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin's work with cut-up is also closely related to plundergraphia because they maintain the integrity of the original source in its entirety while putting words into startlingly new and charged relationships.

3 Modernists demonstrate a precursor to the practice of plundergraphia with their collagist methodology, especially Pound in his Cantos and Eliot in The Waste Land. Their poetics operate at the level of the word or phrase before the level of content, and as such we receive a text of highly plundered sources concocted as a formal pastiche with content following closely behind, what we used to call highly allusive or intertextual writing. 4 Although, an argument could be made for the disposability of words in pulp books and reference books, how-to books, etc. These words often enter into a ceaseless circulation through second hand bookstores and garage sales — a very different fate than that of most newspapers which remains the recycling bin, garbage, archive, or bird/cat/dog cage.

Works Cited

Cutler, Chris. "Plunderphonia." Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. Eds: Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Goldsmith, Kenneth. Day. Massachusetts: The Figures, 2003.

Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
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