UbuWeb UbuWeb Papers Open Letter: Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics

On Kenneth Goldsmith: The Avant-garde at a Standstill
Joshua Schuster

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

Walter Benjamin's notion of dialectics at a standstill is a paradox machine: dialectics follow the movement of an object or concept in development; it is a mode of thinking in motion, conceptualizing process rather than stasis - but in Benjamin's case the paradox of suspended motion allows one to expose the inner workings of the time and process in question. From Benjamin:

It's not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.-Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters them is language.1

In Benjamin's material historiography, when time and process come to a standstill there is great potential for radicalism in an historical aesthetic. An image at a standstill is a constellated concept or excerpt of experience. The dialectical image stands and yet still moves - it is a collection of history at the same time as it is part of history-in-the-making. It is an event yet also a stoppage in time. The paradox is mirrored in the historical agent who would have to suspend conventional time to create a radically new historical event.

Writing a book is one way to suspend history; writing books that capture the suspension of history is another. This essay on Kenneth Goldsmith explores the paradox or suspension machines at work in Goldsmith's conceptual art poetry.

Uncreativity as a constraint on creativity: in Day, Goldsmith applies uncreativity as a method, in effect, paradox as method. The 836 page book is a re-typing of nothing more than the New York Times edition of Friday, September 1, 2000. The conceit is a trap that snaps at the moment when uncreative writing leads to creative reading. The book is unreadable not at the level of meaning, since it is nothing but a collection of the generic journalistic style that maximizes readability, but at the level of the brain's competition for attention. It is guaranteed that the mind will wander while allegedly reading this book. It is without doubt that it will wander to the question of why this book was written in the first place. That is perhaps the zero-point of creative reading. The zero-point of creative writing would be the world as a book or a world without books. Day is one long quote. The plot of a book, which unfolds over hundreds of pages, is that someone is opening a book.

"Unboring boring": Writing is vital, alive, lively, intense, engaging, engrossing, captivating, catchy, impressive, necessary, noteworthy, stimulating, thrilling, dazzling, razzmatazz .... This is not an arbitrary list of superlative adjectives: the Romantic poets and philosophers write in an age of vitality, which is a rather technical term that captures the generative force behind organic bodies and nature in general as well as social-historical changes. Hegel's Geist is the vital absolute. Vitalism does not so much wane as it does cloy in Victorianism and fin-de-siècle decadence. But modernity would not exist without its own newly sharpened vitalism. For the first wave of modernists and avant-garde writers, the vital in language and culture is once again up for grabs in competing definitions, always in danger of being dispersed and dissolved in antiquation or generic prose. To be modern and to write modern one has to have a vital language: Futurism electrifies a dynamism in language; Imagism quick-strikes the emotion and intellect; Dadaism uses noise and provocation to intensify the zone between sense and non-sense. Time has softened the Romantic and modernist versions of vitalism although aesthetics are still predicated on giving kicks to the senses. Yet most of the terminology of vitalism has been de-motivated in its repeated attempt to give luster to commodities. Mass-market paperbacks and films are pre-packaged with sensuous praise and the assurance that your money will buy you the desired stimulation that goes by the name of the thrilling. Still, it is worth noting that there is plenty to carry on the tradition of vitalism today: the work of Arakawa and Gins, the philosophy of Deleuze, the neo-organic systems theories of auto-poiesis.

Can boredom be vitalist? Perhaps vitalism resurfaces in contemporary avant-garde as experimentation on conviction. Experimental conviction is how I would position Goldsmith's notion of unboring boring. Here is Goldsmith on the difference between boring and unboring boring:

I am the most boring writer that has ever lived. If there were an Olympic sport for extreme boredom, I would get a gold medal. My books are impossible to read straight through. In fact, every time I have to proofread them before sending them off to the publisher, I fall asleep repeatedly. You really don't need to read my books to get the idea of what they're like; you just need to know the general concept....

Unboring boring is a voluntary state; boring boring is a forced one. Unboring boring is the sort of boredom that we surrender ourselves to when, say, we go to see a piece of minimalist music.2

Experimental boredom toys with the art of conviction: at what point does one throw one's hands up and declare "this is too much!"? Not shock but boredom of the new. Yet one can be avant-garde at the level of conviction. Conviction and commitment are fair game for experimental aesthetics. Consider again the example of Arakawa and Gins, who launch an avant-garde at the level of conviction in their assertion that "we have decided not to die." That these are unreasonable convictions, absurd commitments, over-the-top demands for sustained conceptual attention make them all the more compelling. The heart of the issue: how far can one commit oneself to one's ideas? How serious do you take your own ideas? How long does one idea stay with you, or when you are dissatisfied, bored with it, do you just throw it away? How close is conviction to faith or fundamentalism? Perhaps for most people today, an ethos is built up by the very reluctance to entertain convictions at any length of time. But another ethos is always lurking around the corner, one that would insist only on conviction as the ultimate intensifier of value. Kant overly normalized the role of aesthetics - not to consolidate and universalize judgment but to question judgment, to put judgment in crisis, to make judgment go beyond itself, towards... experimentation and commitment?

One of the bases of politics is the power to access and grant recognition to causality: who decides what causes are valid and what causes never make it to causality. Radical democratic politics must always involve the making of unreasonable demands to disrupt unresponsive causal networks. One takes an apparently outlandish position (historical: suffrage for all, equal pay and equal rights for all; speculative: unions for all, democratize everything, never work!) and relentlessly adheres to its principles. The taking of extraordinary positions puts the ordinary on its heels - in many cases the ordinary wins, but not before it has to do a little dance to deflect the extraordinary. Radical democratic politics sets in motion a chain of contact that interrupts the status quo of causality and initiates a new causal series. In a homologous way, I am attracted to avant-garde art that practices the activity of making unreasonable demands, taking outlandish positions, and enacting experimental convictions - a paradox is an unreasonable demand on logic, a dialectical image an unreasonable demand on time. This is the genealogy in which I place Goldsmith's work.

Poetics solicits theory: Goldsmith's work entertains a conflict between Debord vs. Baudrillard. Both see that the contemporary is saturated with so much capital that the real (of desire or of suffering) is no match for the insatiable demands of ersatz reality whereby ideology is absolute and commodities control the fate of cities and personal identities. Yet whereas Debord still conceives of resistance under a Marxist banner led by a universal class doing battle in the streets, Baudrillard has not left the living room and is watching television flicker a revolution in technology and media every second.

Baudrillard: "The dialectic stage, the critical stage is empty. There is no more stage. There is no therapy of meaning or therapy through meaning: therapy itself is part of the generalized process of indifferentiation.... Implosion of meaning in the media. Implosion of the social in the masses. Infinite growth of the masses as a function of the acceleration of the system."3

Debord: "The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation."4

Baudrillard: "We are witnessing the end of perspectival and panoptic space..., and thus to the very abolition of the spectacular" (30).

Debord: "The most revolutionary idea concerning city planning derives neither from urbanism, nor from technology, nor from aesthetics. I refer to the decision to reconstruct the entire environment in accordance with the needs of the power of established workers' councils - the needs, in other words, of the anti-State dictatorship of the proletariat, the needs of dialogue invested with executive power. The power of workers' councils can be effective only if it transforms the totality of existing conditions, and it cannot assign itself any lesser a task if it aspires to be recognized - and to recognize itself - in a world of its own design" (126-127).

Baudrillard: "It is the fantasy of seizing reality live that continues - ever since Narcissus bent over his spring. Surprising the real in order to immobilize it, suspending the real in the expiration of its double" (105).

"It is no longer possible to fabricate the unreal from the real, the imaginary from the givens of the real. The process will, rather, be the opposite: it will be to put decentered situations, models of simulation in place and to contrive to give them the feeling of the real, of the banal, of lived experience, to reinvent the real as fiction, precisely because it has disappeared from our life" (124).

Among other differences apparent here, Debord still insists on the effectiveness of the event; Baudrillard sees no events but only movements of information in a sea of simulation. Debord wants to take back the real in a simultaneous political/aesthetic attack, Baudrillard argues that the political and the aesthetic have fused together (or "imploded") so well that both are now substitutes or simulations of any foregone reality principle.

Since Goldsmith has no interest in workers councils and generally abstains from direct political critique, we can assume that he finds more explanatory power in Baudrillard's writings (Goldsmith teaches Baudrillard's simulacra theory in his uncreative writing seminars). Debord flourished in the 60's; Baudrillard's best years were in the 80's. But Baudrillard has aged badly in recent years. He wrote books on the Gulf War and 9/11 denying that they were events - certainly these were scripted but the script still does not match the devastation or the aftermath. Baudrillard, a sociologist and informatics aesthete, has a fondness for instruments that have low sensitivity to embodied experience, existence that is exposed to pain and pleasure, sensations that refuse to disappear from life. Goldsmith's poetics still need to respond to the lame-duck status of recent Baudrillard writing. Maybe not a wholesale return to Marx, but since labor can trigger both boredom and events, Goldsmith's intuitive understanding of how work is being redistributed in the 21st Century (via copying, archiving, moving information, plundering, etc.) will be of help for a new challenge to the ongoing disenfranchisement of labor.

Goldsmith's Head Citations is an attempt at mixing détournement with simulacra. A pun is a minor form of détournement - but how many revolutions can there be in a pun? Could one really reconfigure the May 68 line "sous le pavé, la plage" as: under the concrete poetry, the beach?

Whenever someone says poiesis I want praxis. Whenever someone says praxis I want poiesis. Poiesis without praxis is empty, praxis without poiesis is blind.

Traditionally poetry fetishes quality. Poetry of quality now converted into quantity - thousands of poetry books published every year. Goldsmith: poetry of quantity, converted into quality. Not incidentally, this is one of Marx's equations for the processing of things into capital. How much does it take for quantity to tip over into value? Could there be a man/woman without qualities who is also without quantities?

The economics of Goldsmith's books are always fascinating. Who put up the cash for these things? Why don't they supply their names? How much did all this paper cost? Who buys these kinds of books? Why should these books take up valuable shelf space? What about the environmental impact of printing these paper saturated volumes? It seems that the larger the book and the more it weighs, the stronger its gravitational pull to these kinds of questions. But as an inverse consequence to this gravitational weight, the ecological impact of these books does worry me. Goldsmith's The Weather is composed of haunting prose copied from the slow crawl of an atmospheric ecosystem unfolding - the first lines of the poem: "A couple of breaks of sunshine over the next couple of hours, what little sunshine there is left. Remember, this is the shortest day of the year." - this made all the more melancholic in the face of the fact that a massive paper book always implies a ripping out of plant life.

Return to Debord's critical concept of spectacle, which he defines as "capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image" (24). Perhaps we could describe Goldsmith's books as language accumulated to the point where it becomes image. Day is exactly this unit of capital accumulated as image in the block of a book. By including the text of ads and all the marginalia of newspaper operations in the same flow of writing, Goldsmith provokes a reading that does not distinguish between capital and content, administration and meaning.

Spectacle is the image shorn of its dialectics, the image as absolute that is the inversion of Benjamin's dialectical image. The question remains whether the dialectical image can still exist or be exposed in an age of nothing but the totality of images. Benjamin advocated the dialectical image as an aid to constellate conceptual thinking: "To thinking belongs the movement as well as the arrest of thoughts. Where thinking comes to a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions - there the dialectical image appears" (Arcades, 475). Constellating thought is akin to spreading the image as a map on a table to have a bird's-eye view of all the contradictions, paradoxes, and simultaneities inherent in an event. (Constellations: all great philosophers are materialist cosmologists.) According to Benjamin, the dialectical image is a momentary surfacing of the unconscious of history matched by the unconscious of thinking. Benjamin writes, "Ambiguity is the appearance of dialectic in images, and the law of dialectics at a standstill. This standstill is utopia and the dialectical image, therefore, a dream image."5 At the point where Benjamin invokes the utopia of the image, he takes a turn towards psychology and the apparition of a public, collective dream. The Situationists later called this psychogeography. Benjamin's psychological turn allows for a positioning of the unconscious as agent or as the primal motivational force behind the image-constellation. Consequently, Benjamin is always patrolling for the unconscious, in images, objects, political resistances, etc.

Inversely, the spectacle loves to convert all this into a thriving monopoly of the ego. The avant-garde of the 1930's rebelled against this by tapping into the unconscious; the avant-garde of the 1960's resisted either by trying to shut down the ego (Cage and MacLow's allegedly ego-less writing) or to saturate the ego with desire and its double, knowledge. By the 1980's the self vs. selfless or anti-self wars had subsided and a multiplication or distortion of self-making practices took over. Such a narrative intersects Goldsmith's conceptual poetry at the point when everyone in the room realizes that there is a tremendous ego at work in his writing - ego used as a medium. It would be easiest to pin this ego on Goldsmith himself, an unfair reading that misrecognizes the attack on psychology. Besides, ego as a term is a bit antiquated - some current substitutes include: fame, notoriety, name recognition, self, self-expression, self-absorption, identity, lifestyle, personal capital, etc. Historically, self-expression has taken a beating from avant-garde artists - but isn't this too an expression of the self? I take this to be the motivating question behind Goldsmith's Fidget and Soliloquy. The self under expression is fair game for avant-garde adventures - experimental artists can do so much more than just reject or refuse that the self is of any importance to them. The self is still a goldmine for avant-garde exploration - another way of saying that above all one should not concede the territory of the self to the poets and painters who insist on only self-expression as the proper of its behavior. Perhaps the most accurate dictum for the avant-garde is: cede nothing.

Consider one final paradox machine: the avant-garde at a standstill. The motivating factor of the avant-garde traditionally was its ability to manipulate the future and put art in advance of new ways of living. But art today rarely lives in this forward condition - in almost every case art today does not create events but responds to them (9/11, Bush, the Internet are among the primary pipelines for refreshing new art).

Shorn of its progressive causality, the avant-garde no longer moves in a linear forward direction but spreads out laterally, often oscillating back and forth through the present time. What the avant-garde does supremely well is to investigate what it means to inhabit this lateral time in a literal way. Goldsmith uses boredom to slow down time as a way of tuning into the avant-garde at a standstill. Fidget, Soliloquy, Day, The Weather - such art asks: What is it like to live in these textual environments? Could a different management of language create a better way of living? How is it today that simply just living is an unreasonable demand? A standstill as habitat, as book, as barricade even.


Walter Benjamin The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 462.

2 All quotes from Kenneth Goldsmith taken from his Website: http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/goldsmith

3 Jean Baudrillard Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), 161.

4 Guy Debord The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 12.

5 Walter Benjamin "Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century," in Selected Writings: Volume 3, 1935-1938, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland, and Others (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 40.

Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
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