UbuWeb UbuWeb Papers Open Letter: Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
Kenneth Goldsmith's EPC Author Page
Kenneth Goldsmith's PennSound Page
Kenneth Goldsmith in UbuWeb Contemporary
Goldsmith: "By self-advertising,
attract the attention of the day."1 The Day
being a perfect example of the degree to which Kenneth Goldsmith's
attention-attracting projects have been so well self-advertised that
their paratexts-blurbs and back-cover copy, author statements, interviews,
reviews-make a bid to eclipse, or even completely replace, their
content. Consistently branded, his books come so neatly packaged in
single-sentence summations that they seem to render any actual reading
redundant, or unnecessary: 600 pages of rhyming r
phrases, sorted by syllables and alphabetized; everything he said for
a week; every move his body made for a day; a year's worth of transcribed
weather reports; one day's New York Times, retyped....
Measured against the
specifics of the particular texts, such tag-lines are of course to some
extent inaccurate, and one should always remember Benjamin's warning:
"Never trust what writers say about their own writing."2
Indeed, part of the interest of Goldsmith's projects lies precisely
in the distance they deviate from the tidiness of their clear protective
wrappers. Moreover, I suspect that the obvious topics attracted so far
-strategies of appropriation and boredom; rhetorics of "uncreative
writing" and "conceptual poetics"; genealogies traced to the rules
of the OuLiPo or the useless reference books of 'pataphysics-have
worked as decoys, distracting readers from what may be more central
concerns and entrenched networks of filiation.
One of those concerns,
I want to suggest in these paragraphs, is the concept of the interval.
To read Goldsmith's oeuvre, at a certain remove, reveals a
consistent concern with spacing-with the collapse of distances into
equal measures, and the differences and repetitions subsequently legible
within regimes of periodic regulation. Here the concept of rule
begins to move beyond the obvious, pre-established methods for structuring
books like No. 111 (or the related projects No. 105 and
No. 110) and to extend, as a general principle, to Goldsmith's
other works as well. Regulate: to make regular, or even [f. late
L. regulat-, ppl. stem of regulare
(5th c.), f. regula
"If you start with
rules, you've really got a tough road," as Clark Coolidge says, and
of course in any long work "there will be long stretches of time that
will be dry."3 But even pacing itself ("a thing quite
out of taste, no variety, no composition in the world") can be exciting;
the percussive swarm of Ligeti's Poème, after all,
is made entirely from measure.4 It sounds like a hailstorm.
"Interval," not coincidentally, has always been idiomatically associated
with the weather; it appears, accordingly, in The Weather (as
does "pace"), "from time to time, in place to place", as in
the beautifully rhymed and assonant phrase "some intervals of sun."
[Ultimately ad. L. intervallum, orig. 'space between palisades
or ramparts', later 'interval of space or of time', f. inter
between + vallum rampart. In F. the word appears as entreval,
antreval (13th c.), entrevale, -valle (14-16th
c.), intervalle masc. from 14th c. The earliest Eng. example
represents the first of these; the 14-16thc. intervalle was evidently
also immediately from F. The appearances of the word till the beginning
of the 17th c. are quite sporadic, having little or no historical
connexion with each other.] 1. The period of time between two
events, actions, etc., or between two parts of an action or performance;
a period of cessation; a pause, break."
Times Square [...] Time Warner, timekiller, timepleaser [...] time traveller
[...] time was whatever, times without number [...]." The Weather
reveals similarly idiomatic and idiosyncratic uses of "times" (e.g.
"times of sun and clouds") and those intervals the weather registers
"at times" or "from time to time." Moreover, the structure of
these texts foregrounds the intervals that constitute calendrics: the
hours of Fidget within its day; the days of Soliloquy
within its week; the days of The Weather
within its seasons (sections) within its year (Year, in fact,
being the original working title for the project); the dates that form
the full, awkwardly unmemorizable title of No. 111:
punctuate ["to break into or interrupt in intervals"] the flow
of time, just as the "periods of rain" repeated throughout The
Weather interrupt otherwise indistinct atmospheric systems of continuously
varying degrees of humidity, pressure, and saturation. But the etymological
chance of that idiomatic phrase-"periods
of rain"-further emphasizes the underlying concept of spacing
that relates The Weather to Goldsmith's earlier series of works
on punctuation, beginning with a suite of large-format drawings from
the 1990s and culminating in the chapbook Gertrude Stein On Punctuation,
in which all of the punctuation marks in the eponymous section of Stein's
lecture are extracted and distributed in constellations across a triptych
One precedent for
these works, as Goldsmith has acknowledged, can be found in the redistribution
of punctuation in John Cage's Writing For the Second Time Through
Finnegans Wake. In a haphazard scatter over the field of the page,
unaligned with the orthogonal set of the rest of the text, the punctuation
from Cage's source text is spread without any particular orientation.
Cage and Alison Knowles (who collaborated on the layout) may in turn
have been inspired by one of the more curious moments in the Wake
itself: a question mark, dropped askew between two lines of type and
rotated so that its crook seems to do the work of a comma.5
also references Cage, who composed his own Lecture on the Weather,
and who repeatedly "said that he wanted his music to be like the weather."6
The more direct link, however, is formal. Cage listened to radio news
"in order to find out what the weather is going to be." As The
Weather records, those reports-fit to Procrustean intervals
of sixty-second slots-are exact analogues of Cage's Indeterminacy.7
Cage explained: "In oral delivery of this lecture, I tell one story
a minute. If it's a short one I have to spread it out; when I come
to a long one I have to speak as rapidly as I can."8
Registering the pressures
of a regulating interval, the varied tempi of Cage's vocal performance
distort a natural speaking rhythm and transform vignettes into a musically
interesting composition; because of those variations, as Goldsmith observes,
"Indeterminacy is terrific listening."9 Conversely,
the move from speech to transcribed writing can make for terrific reading,
and the tension between vocal performance and written text-yet another
instance of the logic of the interval-runs throughout Goldsmith's
own work as well. The notation displayed in Gertrude Stein On Punctuation
is exemplary: marking the intervals of grammar in writing while recalling
the oral history embedded in their elocutionary origin as cues for regulating
speech for rhetorical effect.
"The auditor learns[....]
Note the notes of admiration! [...] Count the hemisemidemicolons! Screamer
caps and invented gommas, coites puntlost, forced to farce! The pipette
will say anything at all for a change," to return to Finnegans
Wake, which is itself "the difference between speech to make a
point and speech to make no point at all" (where "point" is the
sentence's full stop).10 Or, as Cage put it in his Lecture
on Nothing: "I have nothing to say and I am saying it."11
Like Indeterminacy, that "saying" is a "composed talk"
pitched to the rubato of "everyday speech" and with its text
divided into the equal measures of a rhythmic structure.12
In the Lecture
on Nothing (as in the contemporaneous Lecture on Something),
Cage's casual, colloquial "talk" is not only punctuated into movements
and units, but the lines of the scored text are each divided into four
measures spaced across the page ("re-quired," as Cage puns in the
opening movement) in a striking typographic layout.13 "This
space of time" (or Interuall, as John Bullokar defined it in
1616: "a distance of time or place") is also one of the lecture's
themes. In an instance of 'composition as explanation,' Cage's
typically modern, intervalic text discusses his interest in "all the
intervals," especially "the modern intervals," explaining: "I
learned that the intervals have meaning."14
Intervals not only
have meaning, but they are, in some sense, what grounds meaning itself:
"the spacing (pause, blank, punctuation, interval in general,
etc.) which constitutes the origin of signification."15
The semiotic system of language depends on its multiple articulations
at different levels: those intervals between letters, words, and larger
units of grammar which introduce the physical space of difference that
permits us to distinguish, cognitively, different meanings. Moreover,
as evinced by the move from the scriptura continua of western
antiquity (in which texts were written without spacing between words),
such intervals have had far-reaching conceptual effects, with changes
in textual space changing the way we understand the world around us.16
Perhaps the most significant
"consequence of the medieval evolutionary process through which space
was introduced into text," according to Peter Saenger, was an increase
in the incidence of silent reading (in short: "space between eyebrows
pushed by speech").17 Whatever the true extent of the historical
change in medieval reading practice, or the actual mechanism of that
change, comparing the intervals of written and spoken language is instructive,
given the counterintuitive degree to which the spacing of spoken language
fails to correspond to written word-boundaries. In the more regular
and predictable blanks of writing, even the most accurate transcription
cannot register speech's incongruent and idiosyncratic measure of
interlexical pause, slur, and transegmental drift.
(Although, as The
Spectator reminds us, with a pun on the typographic and psychological
senses of the word character, handset type might reveal an equally
individualistic temper: "the difference between huddling and spacing
out is one which depends partly on character: very few men spacing out
their letters exactly alike").18 While Goldsmith's punctuation
pieces can reveal some "interference of the lyric ego," the stenciling
of his hand-drawn word pieces (73 Poems
and Tizzy Boost, for instance) seems designed to counter any
idiosyncrasy with uniformity and consistent spacing. However precious,
even those handmade works seem closer to the digital age of precision
desktop publishing than to the classicism of antique fine-press book-art.
attests, Goldsmith is attentive to such typographic particulars, especially
on-line. "There's no spaces in URL's," he explains at one point,
and he later discusses the distributed setting of web text at some length,
concluding: "Is that at about the spacing you want it?"19
One should recall that Goldsmith's monumental on-line editorial project,
UbuWeb, originally began as a far more modest and haphazard archive
devoted primarily to visual poetry, like Brazilian concretismo,
that emphasized the spacing of language on the page. Tellingly, "the
physical attributes the Noigandres group found inspiring in various
poetic precursors reappear in" Goldsmith's own work, with "space
(blancs) and typographical devices as substantive elements of
Here, despite the
obvious emphasis on speech-the mouthwork of salivary swallows in
Fidget, with its play-by-play narration in which Goldsmith "spoke
every movement," or the captured conversations netted in the filtering
screens of No. 111 (not to mention the colloquial stutters and
idioms laid bare in Soliloquy
and The Weather)-is the point at which Goldsmith's work announces
itself as writing, as écriture.21 To align
those works with Cage's spoken lectures or David Antin's "talk
poems" is tempting, but the real affiliation would be based not on
the similarly blatant (and slightly aggressive) self-proclamation of
"talking" in those works, but rather on the signature spacing (les
'blancs') of their transcripts.
"It is necessary,"
in Derrida's accounting, "that interval, distance, spacing occur
[...] with a certain perseverance in repetition."22 A reflection
of that perseverance, mirrored from one facet of the logic of the interval,
can be glimpsed in the exhaustive compass aspired to by so many of Goldsmith's
projects (already evident in the reference-book length of No. 111):
all the punctuation from a source; every
move his body made; every word spoken; every
word in the Times; every
forecast, every day. The logical conclusion seems to be the end-game
of Benjamin's collector: "Everything remembered, everything thought,
everything conscious...."23 Intervals register only when
their background has a sufficiently inclusive, expansive extension and
(The interval thus
opens a series of alternately discrepant and congruent spaces between
construction and reception. On the one hand, it can serve to pace both
the material and the reader ["I'll finish that chapter and then
we'll take a break"].24 On the other hand, the rigorously
uniform and exhaustive structures aspired to by these works are at odds
with the modes of their assumed reading: irregular, discontinuous, distracted-skimmed
and sampled and dipped. "You cannot read this thing cover front to
back[....] It's the kind of book that you might leave your on the
back of your toilet[....] It's not meant to be read linearly... none
of my work is.")25
For this reason, a
project such as Broken New York,
with its flâneur "attempt to catalog every type of streetscape
defect the city has to offer," fits assuredly into Goldsmith's
oeuvre (although the work is in fact a collaboration with David
Wondrich).26 The family resemblance is equally unmistakable
in a project Goldsmith referred to as "retyping my library": ostensibly
every book on his shelf, in the alphabetical order of their author's
last name, retyped and repackaged under the logic of a new, uniform
interval. In place of the irregular sizes, colors, and bindings of the
originals, and regardless of their genre or status: a vast set of identical,
archival-grey document boxes.
Such a project obviously
points in many directions. With its witty evocation of the geometric
units of 1960s Minimalism it veers back toward the sculptural tradition
in which Goldsmith was trained at RISD (and hence is directly related
to the volumetric heft of Day). At the same time, it re-imagines
Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library," recalls Perec's catalogue
of ways to rearrange a library, and restages Borge's quixotic Menard.
But what I want to emphasize is how effortlessly it merges with Goldsmith's
other works, and what a solid (perhaps, necessary) place it holds in
that series, even though it went unrealized. The oeuvre, in short,
seems to have established its own interval.
A certain spacing,
that is, has emerged between the books themselves (I am always a little
surprised to see the books together, side-by-side, and remember that
they were not all published in an identical format, or with a uniform
design). The oeuvre has come to constitute something like
a collection of collections, a second-order collection in Benjamin's
thinking, a sort of catalogue déraisonné. "What is decisive
in collecting is that the object is detached from all its original functions
in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of
the same kind. The relation is the diametric opposite of any utility,
and falls into the peculiar category of completeness."27
Accordingly, the converse
also holds true. The logic of the interval has come to feel like such
a forcefully established principle of Goldsmith's signature that some
of his works-Head Citations; "Punk"; 6799; an
unpublished Manichean epic of variously weighted fonts; an immense unfinished
drama of chat-room dialogues-have in turn come to seem like more
minor and insubstantial works than one abandoned and recycled before
being finished or ever seen by more than a few studio visitors. And
this is true irrespective of those texts' interest or importance,
and regardless of the time or effort they required. They almost seem
to lack a certain authenticating signature, to be fully his.
So 6799, for
instance-simply a list of Goldsmith's record collection-is
the work that at first glance seems to most nakedly evince his identity
as a collector, but it appears, in light of Benjamin's argument, to
actually be the book furthest removed from the logic of the collector.
It does reflect (though "brittle, too, are mirrors") the collection's
peculiar category of completeness, but like a library card-catalogue
6799 is still too utile, still too close to what might have been
its original function.28 All of which brings us back again
to sculpture. Relating collector and sculptor through the figure of
the plinth, Benjamin concludes: "Collectors are beings with tactile
spacing creates a kind of non-rhythmical metrics. While all intervals
permit measurement (phone-poles in the desert, equally spaced and pulsing
as you pass, allow distance to be judged), Goldsmith's spacing is
a special instance. Where some spacing overlays a regular interval onto
an unchanged ground (like the superimposed grid of an unprojected map),
or establishes a form into which information is fit in distributions
that could be accounted for otherwise (the measures of a musical score,
the frames of cinema), Goldsmith's intervals tend to regulate one
regime in a way that distorts others. With one variable held-perversely,
'pataphysically-constant, others are allowed to be set radically,
Much of the interest
of Soliloquy, for instance, comes from its defamiliarization
of otherwise quotidian speech, and the way in which diegetic space and
time are collapsed into the equal intervals of the textual period: one
statement follows another with the same spacing regardless of whether
the two utterances took place as part of the same conversation or an
hour later, across town, with a different interlocutor. Similarly, the
syllabic intervals of No. 111
reveal unexpected rhythmic patterns; the spacing of its phrases yield
a data-set of discoveries for questions linguists never thought to ask
(e.g.: do five-syllable colloquial American English phrases ending in
a schwa have a typical metrical base?)
Similarly, the spacing
in Fidget establishes a certain interval by registering only
one movement per sentence, creating a strange sense of bodily rhythm
in which any action is equally narrated regardless of its scale or significance:
a swing of the arm condenses into the same textual space that the blink
of an eyelid expands to fill. Moreover, because the spacing of Fidget
depends on the time it takes to narrate (rather than perform) actions,
they appear hastened or slowed to match the beat of this new textual
pulse, just as any comprehensive corporeal view is distorted by recording
only selected movements at the expense of the thousands of other simultaneous
The spacing of
Fame is equally distorting. Goldsmith asked Birmingham residents
for five names off the top of their heads and then published the responses
in public venues: the newspaper, billboards, and finally a bronze civic
monument. The pentameter intervals of those texts bring together certain
names that other categorizations (family, lovers, heroes, friends) would
separate while omitting names that other schema would put in natural
proximity. Again, I do not mean to suggest that Fame is unrelated
to Goldsmith's several other projects exploring the interesting and
timely intersection of surveillance and exhibitionism-only that
they are also connected, and perhaps at a deeper level, by the logic
of the interval.
Day also depends
on the distorting effects of the interval, at both a molecular and molar
level, and as in Soliloquy and Fidget its acts of regulation
defamiliarize the quotidian world, rendering its everyday language extraordinary
and strange. At the micro-level, its distinctive facture arises from
a peculiar textual democratization, reducing the newspaper's patchwork
carnival of fonts and typefaces to the book page's uniform print-block
of equal-weight twelve-point Times. Each word in Day
is given equal weight, just as setting the kerning to zero gives each
typeset character an equal spacing. "Spacing consists in putting a
proper distance between words."30 "My entire production,"
as Goldsmith has observed, "is predicated upon distance."31
At the molar level,
the newspaper source of Day
is twice removed from its original spacing. First, the paper is pulled
from the dependable interval of the daily (a single date, September
1st, 2000, snatched from a series that stretches back before
any reader's memory to 1856 and projects forward to any imaginable
horizon). Secondly, the book removes the paper from the multiple printings
of that single day's circulation run, as its text is translated into
the new format of a second codex edition. With this double withdrawal,
Day fixes and monumentalizes the transient in the frozen moment
of sculpture (like the implicit gossip and fleeting associations of
the Birmingham monument).
in this snapshot of a day, it seems to me, are the obituaries. "Literature,"
as Pound famously put it, "is news that STAYS news," and in this
strenuous attempt to avoid literariness the obituaries maintain their
status-stay news -in a way that other items do not.32
The other stories, in hindsight, now appear obsolete or irrelevant;
they have been superceded by more recent developments or rendered mere
trivia [the US Open semifinalists, say]. Or, more interestingly, they
have acquired a certain ironic frisson from subsequent events. Obituaries,
in contrast, capture their news at a point of singularity: each individual
always just as dead, their facts without a future.)
Moreover, these removes
bring Goldsmith's project under the sign of Marcel Duchamp. Although
Duchamp's readymade is often taken as a synonym for objet
trouv, part of its essence is the same logic of the interval we
have already seen, including the temporal spacing that structures so
many of Goldsmith's books: "Naturally inscribe that date, hour,
minute, on the readymade as information. Also the serial characteristic
of the readymade."33 That "serial characteristic" is
the removal of one particular item from the spacing of otherwise identical,
mechanically reproduced commodities: one singular snow shovel from the
undifferentiated stock on the hardware store hooks; this urinal
from the equidistant set on the men's room wall....
My argument here has
not been that reading the spacing inherent in Goldsmith's work has
led us anyplace unexpected (one can see the allegiance to Cage or Duchamp
with half-a-glance at any one of the works), but rather that attention
to the interval brings us to those familiar places by more secure and
assured routes, that we have met topics half-way, on the common ground
of structure. It is the logic of the lap, which requires two equal intervals
(the up and the back, even to imagine something like "half
a lap"). The lapse of a catalogue, equal and opposite, alogical, pure.
"Suppose a collapse," as Stein wrote, "in rubbed purr."34
i Oliver Goldsmith, The Life of Richard Nash, of Bath, Esq; Extracted Principally From His Original Papers (London: J. Newbery; Bath: W. Frederick, 1762): 13.
ii Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999): 302.
iii Clark Coolidge, "Arrangement," Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute, ed. Anne Waldman and Marilyn Webb (Boulder and London: Shambhala, 1978): 159; Kenneth Goldsmith, The Weather (Los Angeles: Make Now, 2005).
iv Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield: A Tale. Supposed to be written by Himself (Salisbury: Printed by B. Collins, for F. Newbery, 1766): xvi. Gyrgy Ligeti. Poème symphonique pour 100 metronomes (1962).
v James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (NY: Penguin, 1976): 207.
vi Kenneth Goldsmith, untitled review of John Cage: Composed In America, RIF/T 05.01.
vii Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman, interview with John Cage.
viii John Cage, Silence (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961): 260.
ix Kenneth Goldsmith, Soliloquy (New York: Granary Books, 2001): 38
x Joyce, Wake, 374; Kenneth Goldsmith, "I Look to Theory Only When I Realize That Somebody Has Dedicated Their Entire Life to a Question I Have Only Fleetingly Considered" (work in progress, version 01.2002).
xi Cage, Silence: 109.
xiv John Bullokar, An English expositor (London: John Legatt, 1616); Cage, Silence: 115-116 et passim.
xv Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976): 68.
xvi See, to begin with: Paul Saenger, Space between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997); and A History of Reading In the West, ed. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, trans. Lydia Cochrane (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).
xvii Saenger, Space: 20; Goldsmith, Fidget (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1999): 11:00.
xviii The Spectator XLIV (London: 22 April, 1871): 474.
xix Goldsmith, Soliloquy: 31; 111.
x Kenneth Goldsmith, "From (Command) Line to (Iconic) Constellation"; Augusto de Campos, Decio Pignatari, and Haroldo de Campos: Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry (1958).
xi Kenneth Goldsmith, letter to Marjorie Perloff, quoted in Perloff, "Vocable Scriptsigns: Differential Poetics in Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget and John Kinsella's Kangaroo Virus," in Poetry, Value, and Contemporary Culture, eds. Andrew Roberts and John Allison (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002) 21-43.
xxii Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973): 135.
xxiii Benjamin, Arcades: 205.
xxiv Goldsmith, Soliloquy: 282.
xxv Ibidem, 14.
xxvi Andy Newman, "Torn, Bent, Dinged or Unhinged" New York Times (April 13, 2002).
xxvii Benjamin, Arcades: 204.
xxiv Ibidem, 205.
xxx Philip Luckombe, A Concise History of the Origin and Progress of Printing; with Practical Instructions to the Trade in General. Compiled from Those Who Have Wrote on This Curious Art, 2nd edition, non-uniform title (London: Printed and Sold by W. Adlard and J. Browne, 1770): 396.
xxxi Goldsmith, Language Encounters.
xxxii Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1934): 29.
xxxiii Marcel Duchamp, Essential Writings: Marchand du sel / Salt Seller, ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer M. Peterson (London: Thames & Hudson, 1975): 32.
xxxiv Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons: objects, food, rooms (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991): 27.
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