UbuWeb UbuWeb Papers Open Letter: Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
Uncreative is the New Creative: Kenneth Goldsmith Not Typing
Kenneth Goldsmith's EPC Author Page
Kenneth Goldsmith's PennSound Page
Kenneth Goldsmith in UbuWeb Contemporary
The epigraph for Kenneth Goldsmith's Day is, by now, very familiar: "That's not writing. That's typing."1 But is it?The Trouble with Bon Mots
Truman Capote's famous dismissal
of Kerouac's work - "it isn't writing at all, it's typing"2
- turns out to be entirely accurate, even if it isn't interpreted
as a pejorative. Capote first made this remark on David Susskind's
television show during an appearance with Dorothy Parker and Norman
Mailer, but, knowing a bon mot
when he uttered one, repeated it as often as possible (with the inevitable
distortions) in interviews in later years3.
What's odd is that Capote
never saw his own brand of New Journalism as an equal but different
product of typewriting, rooted, as it is, in many of the same values
as William S. Burroughs's and Charles Olson's notions of writing
as a poetic proprioceptive reportage capable of conveying perceptual
truths. After repeating his Kerouac joke in one later interview, Capote
was asked by his interlocutor exactly how many writers are just typing,
to which he responded "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent. (Laughs.)
And that's being generous"4. Capote was missing the obvious,
even though he has already stated it: for most of the last two centuries,
writing was typewriting, and, rather than being an anomaly, he
was as caught up in that logic as everyone else.
Capote's moment of blindness
is even stranger considering that it occurred during an event when he
was fully aware of the difficulties that Parker and Mailer were having
in attempting to cope with another new medium, television, which he
had already mastered: "Dorothy Parker was scared out of her wits,
'cause this was live television, and she was just afraid to open her
mouth, and Norman - I kept tripping him up all the time"5.
Even after his comeuppance at Capote's hands, Mailer, in an article
for Esquire, defended Capote on the grounds that he was invoking
"the difficulties of the literary craft in contrast to Mr. Kerouac's
undisciplined methods of work"6. He, too, missed the point.
Disciplinary practices saturate Kerouac's writing, but as they were
not the kind of disciplines familiar to himself, Capote, or Parker,
they were effectively invisible. What Kerouac did when he typed was
of an entirely different order than the writers working with pens in
his own or the previous century. As with custom cars, Marcus Boon notes
that On The Road, which celebrates speed as a value in and of
itself, is a product of "the machinic accelerations of World War II"7
... accelerations which were produced, before, during and after the
war, with the aid of typewriting.
What Kenneth Goldsmith does when he writes is not typing. It operates according to another logic altogether, a logic delineated by the disciplinary constraints of networks, software and the flow of digital text.The Value of Typing
Day is a massive tome,
836 pages in length - as thick as the phonebook of many cities. Its
contents consists of the entire issue of the New York Times from
Friday, September 1, 2000, reproduced "word for word, letter for letter,
from the upper left hand corner to the lower right hand corner, page
by page"8 and bound into book form.
In "Uncreativity As Creative Practice," Goldsmith's manifesto on Day, he writes that the object of the project is to be an uncreative writer:
I'm interested in a valueless practice. Nothing has less value than yesterday's news (in this case yesterday's newspaper - what could be of less value, say, than stock quotes from September 1, 2000?). I'm interested in quantifying and concretizing the vast amount of "nutritionless" language; I'm also interested in the process itself being equally nutritionless.9
Following this trajectory,
and with Capote's quote still ringing in our collective ears, it would
seem that the logical tool for producing nutritionless language would
However, Goldsmith discovers
almost immediately what Capote could not see - that somewhere in the
middle of the twentieth century, in the eyes of many writers, typewriting
became the preeminent creative method. For Goldsmith like so many others,
merely hitting the keys of the typewriter is enough to invoke some sort
of inspiration: "with every keystroke comes the temptation to 'fudge,'
'cut-and-paste,' and 'skew' the mundane language"10.
Moreover, because of the current nostalgic cultural association between
typing and unalienated writing (both journalistic and creative), the
act of typing itself became problematic as a means of composing something
Even the physical labour involved
in the retyping of an entire newspaper could be interpreted as a feat
of athleticism or performance art, Herculean or abject or both by turns
depending on one's critical perspective. Indeed, one of the obvious
precedents for Goldsmith's "Uncreativity As Creative Practice"
in terms of both the document's syntax and intention are the statements
of artist Tehching Hsieh11, whose year-long performances
(such as living on the streets of Manhattan for a year; living in a
barred, austere cell inside his studio for a year; tied to artist Linda
Montano for a year by a length of rope cinched around their waists;
punching a time clock every hour on the hour for a year) occupy this
same uncertain but extreme realm. Making Day, Goldsmith would
be equal parts Kerouac and Don Marquis's abject typing cockroach assistant,
archy ... as long as he was actually typing.
But he wasn't. When Goldsmith conceived of Day, he didn't actually own a typewriter. As an occasional professional web developer, Goldsmith has a sophisticated and intimate knowledge of the artistic potential of network technologies, and has stated on many occasions that "If it's not on the Web, it doesn't exist." For a writer familiar with the tools and procedures that produce text in a networked computing environment, a typewriter is a novelty at best, and at worst an inconvenience. Consequently, Goldsmith boxed up and returned the typewriter that he had purchased explicitly to work on Day within days of bringing it home, and turned to the network-based document handling system of choice: optical character recognition (OCR) scanning. In a globalized milieu where multinational corporations routinely outsource the digitization of their print archives to firms in India, China and the Philippines, and digital sweatshops exploit third-world labourers to "play online games 24/7 in order to create virtual goods that can be sold for cash"12, Goldsmith commoditizes his own labour by converting himself into a one-man data conversion sweatshop, explicitly to avoid being "paid handsomely" for an extended act of performative typing that could easily be staged in a gallery13. While Goldsmith is not a political writer, the production of Day raises many interesting questions about the production, storage and maintenance of writing in a contemporary context.Unböring
... which brings me to the
question of Day's relationship to boredom. For a writer and
artist like Goldsmith, growing up and formulating his practice in New
York under the shadow of John Cage, Andy Warhol, Nam June Paik and Jackson
Mac Low, whose work all deals extensively with boredom, the question
of the artist's relation to boredom is inescapable. As Fredric Jameson
details in his discussion of video art, boredom has been a significant
part of aesthetic practice since the inception of high modernism. It
"can always be used productively as a precious symptom of our own
existential, ideological, and cultural limits, an index of what has
to be refused in the way of other people's cultural practices and
their threat to our own rationalizations about the nature and value
of art"14. Boredom, then, is a sign that we are approaching
something we will not yet permit ourselves to think.
One of the most interesting
aspects of Goldsmith's approach is he accuses the boring aesthetes
of not being boring enough: "John Cage, whose mission it was
to accept all sound as music, failed; his filter was on too high. He
permitted only the sounds that fell into his worldview. Commercial sounds,
pop music, lowbrow culture, sounds of violence and aggression, etc.
held no place in the Cagean pantheon"15. In Jameson's
terms, Cage et al. did not place the markers indicating the limits of
the amusing far enough out into the boring realm that lies beyond. Over
the last thirty years, the low-cultural cognates of Jameson's subject
matter - music videos, reality television and the availability of
cheap home video technology which has ensured that many families now
have extensive footage of births, birthday parties, baby's first steps,
graduations, weddings and so on, to say nothing of the roles that boredom
plays in other aspects of contemporary culture, like electronic music
- have greatly expanded the overall toleration of, and arguably even
created a craving for, aestheticized boredom, far surpassing the avant-garde's
Jameson chooses video as the privileged medium for his discussion of this boredom, which signals an end to both the author as great artist and to the corresponding notion of his productions as Great Works because, he claims, video always exists as part of a "flow" rather than as a series of discrete objects16. Goldsmith's own metaphors confirm that he conceives of his own work in terms of flow as well: Cage's "filter was on too high". The notion of the "filter", first part of the lexicon of cybernetics and information theory formulated to express the subjective processes that separate out the signals that one individual finds useful from the otherwise contextually useless noise of overall information flow, has passed into the popular vocabulary, thanks to over a decade of consumer-grade email clients and image handling software. And, large as it may be in bound form, Day is still easiest to conceive of as part of Goldsmith's overall output - a considerable flow in and of itself, extensive enough that many of his works bear numerical designations rather than titles. In an interview with Marjorie Perloff, Goldsmith states, "I've come to believe that language by its nature is fluid and will assume any form it's poured into"17.Word Processors
The fluidity of language that Goldsmith's writing demonstrates is a function of the behaviour of language under the conditions of networked computing, as Goldsmith tells Perloff:
None of my works after 73 Poems could have been done without the computer [...] My method of language hunting changed in 1994 when I started using the internet. Back then only gopher space or the text-based Lynx browser was available, but suddenly there was reams and reams of raw language available. I didn't even have to type, I just had to cut-and-paste.18
Typewriting produces discrete
works - one letter per cell in an invisible grid on a discrete page,
which in turn is part of a discrete manuscript - written by discrete
subjects: authors. Computing produces flows, or more often, reproduces
flows (as Brian Stefans has remarked, Day
is "a full frontal act of acidic plagiarism"19), which
aren't so much written as they are filtered by people like Goldsmith,
who is not constituted according to the same logic as an author writing
with a typewriter: "I no longer think of myself as a poet or a writer,
but instead as a word-processor"20.
This is not to say that a kind of "mechanical depersonalization"21 was not part of typewriting as well; in both cases, the machine first renders the body of its operator amenable to its operation, then subsumes the operator's identity into itself. Jameson argues, though, that while depersonalization may have been present in modernist technologies (such as the still photography that preceded video, which required clamping the subjects' heads into position to immobilize them during long exposures, resulting in "the machine as subject and object, alike and indifferently"22), it "goes even further in the new medium"23.Extracting Value
Consider the following passage, from science fiction writer Jack Womack's novel Ambient, describing the fate of the "word processor" in Jameson's "new medium":
Each processor sat in a small cubicle, their eyes focusing the CRTs hanging on the walls before them; each wore headphones so as to hear their terminals - number eights - as they punched away. A red light flashed over one of the cubicles. One of the office maintenants rolled over and unlocked the stocks that held the woman's feet. It guided her across the room, toward the lav; her white cane helped her in tapping out the way. The system had flaws; some employees went insane - they were fired - and some grew blind - the ones whose fingers slipped were given Braille keyboards, at cost.24
In Ambient, the cognate
of proportional spacing is the ability to write every last drop of productivity
out of a human asset - the weakest component in the new human-computer
writing network - by adapting itself to steadily degenerating bodies.
The cost for the necessary adaptations, which are already minimal, thanks
to the adaptability of computing technologies, can always be passed
on to the workers themselves.
The situation for generative typists is not much better. The familiar dictating voices are still present, but in a networked milieu, become even more despotic as this fragment of a sentence from William T. Vollmann's You Bright and Risen Angels: a cartoon demonstrates:
The keys of my typewriter depress themselves and clack madly, like those of a player piano, like (more appropriately still, since we are in the age of electricity) a teletype machine in some computer center at three in the morning, with the lights glaring steadily down, failed programs in the wastebasket and punchcards on the floor; and far off somewhere at the other end of the dedicated synchronous modem line, a sunken computer swims in its cold lubricants and runs things, and there is nothing to do but wait until it has had its say; the keys do not feel my touch; they do not recognize me; and all across the room the other programmers rest their heads in their arms as Big George dictates to them as well, garbage in and garbage out, screwing up everything with his little spots of fun, refusing to drown in the spurious closure of a third-person narrative (think how lonely he must be if he has to play such stupid games with me); when what I really wanted to do was write about our hero [...]25
As recently as 1967, the focal
character of John Barth's Lost In The Funhouse was still capable
of formulating elaborate fantasies of authorial sovereignty, describing
writing as "a truly astonishing funhouse, incredibly complex yet utterly
controlled from a great central switchboard like the console of a pipe
organ," and himself as its secret operator26. You Bright
and Risen Angels abandons any hope of mastery along with the phonocentrism
of Barth's pipe organ metaphor; it reveals the fantasy of authorial
control as a shimmering chimerical product of his own funhouse mirrors.
The author is out of control from the beginning, merely a local node
soldered into the complex network that constitutes the scene of computerized
writing. There is no certain point of origin for the text, and, it suggests,
no privileged final version. A vast, impersonal, remote mainframe and
the villainous Big George dictate simultaneously to the author, who
situates himself as one of a masochistic group of "programmers"
who only experience subjectivity intermittently: "all I can hope to
do is to type in a little ameliorating detail here and there so that
my angels will at least have the dignity of consistency as they are
made to kill each other, and fall and die, and maybe Big George will
draw a long breath at the end of this section and I can make adjustments,
but I doubt it, I really doubt it; and all I can say is that I'm very
sorry and that I'm dying, too."27
Womack's and Vollmann's
abject cyborgs provide some evidence for Jameson's contention about
the depersonalization of the author under computing, but so does Goldsmith's
own work. In Fidget,28 a limit-case for autobiography,
Goldsmith objectifies his body for a day in order to first describe
its movements into a tape recorder and then transcribe them into digital
text, which can flow into many containers: print, a kinetic software
application, a gallery installation, a sound recording (In her supplementary
essay on Fidget, Perloff calls this a "differential poetics").
Goldsmith's writing is many things, often simultaneously, but it is
None of this means that Goldsmith
was successful in his attempt to cleanse his work of creativity, which
Goldsmith himself freely admits: "The object of the work was to create
a valueless practice, which I found to be an impossibility since the
act of reproducing the texts in and of itself has some sort of intrinsic
value."29 In fact, Goldsmith's practice has proved to
be so valuable that it may well have spawned its own movement in American
poetry; there are "uncreative writing" classes inspired directly
by his work at at least three U.S. universities already. As much as
anything else, this is evidence of a discontinuity between discursive
formations: while terms like "typing" and "uncreativity" are
still in circulation, the networks which inform them in a context like
Goldsmith's writing have shifted the meanings of these terms in substantial
ways. Uncreative is the new creative, and typing will never be typewriting
What remains is the uneasy question of the economics of writing subjects in a networked world: who writes, who controls, who pays, and who benefits? Goldsmith's writing practice, already complex and extensive, will be an important site for the investigation of these questions.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. Day. Great Barrington: The Figures, 2003. 7.
2 Nicoisia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. 588.
3 See Capote, Truman. Truman Capote: Conversations. Ed. M. Thomas Inge. Jackson/London: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. 299; also Capote, Truman. Conversations with Capote. Ed. Lawrence Grobel. New York: NAL Books, 1985. 135.
4 Capote, Truman. Conversations with Capote. Ed. Lawrence Grobel. New York: NAL Books, 1985. 135.
5 Capote, Truman. Truman Capote: Conversations. Ed. M. Thomas Inge. Jackson/London: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. 298.
6 Mailer, Norman. "Of A Small And Modest Malignancy". Esquire. Qtd. in Capote, Truman. Conversations with Capote. Ed. Lawrence Grobel. New York: NAL Books, 1985. 32
7 Ibid, 198.
14 Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. 72.
16 Jameson, 76.
17 Perloff, Marjorie. "A
Conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith." Jacket
21 (February 2003). <www.jacketmagazine.com/21/perl
21 Jameson, 74.
22 Ibid, 73.
23 Ibid, 74.
24 Womack, Jack. Ambient. New York: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1987. 50.
25 Vollmann, William T. You Bright and Risen Angels. London: Andre Deutsch, 1987. 15.
26 Barth, John. Lost In The Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice. . New York: Doubleday, 1988. 97.
27 Vollmann, 17.
28 Goldsmith, Kenneth. Fidget. Toronto: Coach House Books, 1999.