1/27/07

Kenneth Goldsmith On Conceptual Writing

"(...) it employs intentionally self and ego effacing tactics using uncreativity, unoriginality, illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft, and falsification as its precepts; information management, word processing, databasing, and extreme process as its methodologies; and boredom, valuelessness, and nutritionlessness as its ethos."

@ poetryfoundation.org (announced to be archived here)

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

I sent this to the Poetry Foundation blog today.

Kent

*

Kenneth, you write, concerning Uncreative Writing:

"(...) it employs intentionally self and ego effacing tactics using uncreativity, unoriginality, illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft, and falsification as its precepts; information management, word processing, databasing, and extreme process as its methodologies; and boredom, valuelessness, and nutritionlessness as its ethos."

(And in response to a question in the comments box, asking if the presentation of John Lovitz as phone-book "Author" in a Yellow Pages ad represents an instance of conceptual writing, you write):

"The Lovitz character is in opposition to conceptual writing. Lovitz reinforces every cliché of the Romantic author, particularly in the scene where he is typing and has his moment of inspiration when hitting the "A." The distinction can be traced back to Borges's conception of Pierre Menard. Menard invents two chapters of Don Quixote word for word, thus casting him in the tradition of Romantic genius. If Lovitz or Menard copied -- not invented -- their works could be called conceptual writing."

Ironic as it is, given the anti-aesthetic being championed, your posts have been very provocative and interesting. I agree with "Jane," above, that your proposals have been *fun* to read, easily the least boring posts I've seen on the Poetry Foundation blog. But I think Jane raises some provocative issues in turn, arguing that you don't go "far enough" (even if she does get a little sardonic in the process--which is all in the spirit of things, really). I hope, out of sincere curiosity, that you will engage her suggestion that there are some "conceptual" blindnesses inherent to your insights, though not, as she says, that this is necessarily a bad thing in the least.

Adding to her points, and bouncing off your comments quoted above, I wanted to ask about something I'd see as another example of your program not taking its principles "far enough":

Why, if unoriginality, valuelessness, selflessness, and unmediated textual monotony are the aim, do you and other Uncreative Writers insistently present yourselves under the institutional sign of Authorship? Why, that is, do you choose to burden your iconoclastic philosophy with an ideological function that, to draw from you, extends and reinforces the figure of the Romantic author: the figure who originates, who, yes, CREATES his "uncreativity"? Why adorn a series of polemics in favor of ego-erasure-via-valueless-text with the titillating values of Authorial identity (and a raffish hat in an promotional photo, to boot)? Why not just make things REALLY boring and present meticulously copied text without attribution of any kind?

Well, there are actually lots of other questions I'd like to ask... But in a way, and despite an admiration--even fascination--for the tenacity and ambition involved, one can't (speaking for myself) help but wonder if behind this purported quest for self-effacement and pure ennui is a hidden wish that the "concept" of it all will provoke a certain excitement, an institutional frisson, so to speak, that will make Authors like Kenny Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin super Interesting to the Poetry public (if you'll excuse my Capitals).

As I said, not that there is anything terrible about this, necessarily. We're all a bundle of contradictions and hypocrisies. But might there be some of these in your program that are not yet sufficiently acknowledged?

Kent Johnson

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Kent,

Kenneth Goldsmith edited "I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews." There are obvious parallels between the two. Warhol removed the artist's touch from the canvas, created a "factory" to produce impersonal paintings, adhered to an aesthetic of banality, neutrality and boredom, and yet the public was endlessly fascinated. A while back, I wrote about Richard Prince on this blog. Like Kenneth Goldsmith, Prince is also a Warholian.

It's instructive to think of Philip Guston and Joseph Beuys. Contemporary with Warhol, they were hot and socially engaged, quite a contrast to Warhol's cool currency.

Linh

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Kent,

Apropos Warhol, when I wrote "the public was endlessly fascinated," I meant fascinated by Warhol, the person, the mask, the corpse-like being. As an impersonal painter, Warhol became the most recognizable artist in the world, an irony not lost on Kenneth Goldsmith, with his raffish hat and sunglasses, etc.

Linh

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Kent,

Kenneth Goldsmith teaches at U Penn (where I'm also teaching one course, by the way). The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia is on U Penn campus. In 1965, Warhol had his first museum show at the ICA. Anticipating a large crowd at the opening, Warhol's paintings were removed from the walls. This is the first and last time in history where there was no art at an art opening. Having nothing to look at, nothing to do, the crowd mobbed Warhol, who had to be rescued from the ICA by the Philadelphia fire department, through a hole they sawed through the ceiling.

I'm sure you know this story already, it's old history, but it's still worth a retelling.

Linh

Anonymous said...

Linh,

Thanks for the comments. Speaking of Philly (I didnt' know you were teaching there), here's an interesting anecdote: I was sitting in the booth next to you (right behind Susan Schultz, whom I recognized from a photo and because she was talking about Hawaii) at Dirty Frank's Bar on--I believe it was--Thursday night, during the MLA. I didnt' realize you were you until I saw a photo of you later, from the mass reading at the Convention. I had attempted to engage one of the grad students who was there, asking if the group was from the program at Penn, if they studied with Charles Bernstein, etc., but he didn't seem too interested, nor did he seem to recognize me. Then again, maybe it was because he DID recognize me that he didn't seem too interested, who knows?

Anyway, I decided to simply sit there, incognito, enjoying, like a fly on the wall, the nice gossipy talk about Barrett this and Charles that, who got this or that interview and so forth, hoping that Susan Schultz might say something about Yasusada, since she had recently published something about him, and that that would give me my natural opening. But alas, everyone then except Tom Devaney and the grad student who didn't want to talk to me left, and so I sat there smiling, wondering if maybe Tom knew who I was, but of course he didn't, why would he?

Why I'm saying this, I don't know, since it doesn't have much to do with the topic of Uncreative Writing, though maybe in a way it does, inasmuch as my point that anonymous forms of production (in all their possibilities and guises) have their advantages.

No, my point in what I said about Kenny Goldsmith was not to disparage in the least--I wouldn't sit too long with "his" writing, I suppose, but his energy is tremendous, he's done a huge service with UBUWEB, and I love his hat. My point, rather, was to prod at a question, a rather banal one, but one that is key, seems to me, in relation to this null aesthetic of his and his cohorts: What is the relation between theory and practice?

Because there is an interesting contradiction, you might agree: On the one hand, the theory is very *interesting*; on the other hand, the practice (or the product) is very *boring*. And one wants to ask: What is most important, the theory or the practice? Which is an important question, because the practice obviously, especially in this matter of the Uncreative, doesn't exist without the theory. And if the theory is more important, then, well, the "aesthetic" claims don't really hold any water, since all in all, the Uncreative gesture exists to provoke interest. If, on the other hand the practice is held to be most important, well, then it is compromised by its necessary complement, the Interesting theory.

I realize that perhaps Kenny G. might say that it is a matter of the theory and the practice being fused at the belly, that they are in dialectical unity, as the saying went, back when Ron and Barrett and Lyn were walking around Leningrad, me tagging along, i.e., that it makes no sense to speak of them as discrete... But then this cancels the whole argument for the boring quality of the work, for the work is fused at the belly with a fascinating twin, etc.

I guess when you get right down to it, and yes, I know all about the Warhol connection, and that is partly my point, my nagging question is this: Why the belatedness? Why this replay of Duchamp's shovel, over and over again, claiming that the gesture is boring when in fact the Uncreative poets so desperately and obviously want it to be interesting... Maybe they mean to make something like a Warhol movie of Duchamp's shovel in poetry? But, OK, we get it already, if so.

And it IS interesting, yes, though not necessarily for me only in the way that the Uncreative writers secretly want it to be interesting.

But this is very stream of consciousness and no doubt boring as a traffic report that never seems to end.

Kent

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Kent,

Goldsmith's dispatch on Poetry Foundation is exciting because it's a manifesto, and we don't get too many of those anymore, especially in this country. Warhol's terse pronouncements were cool too. In any case, I'm sorry I missed you at Frank's. Let's meet there the next time you come to town!

Linh

Anonymous said...

You bet, Linh. It's a great bar.

Maybe we can go there after my reading at Penn next semester!

:~)

Kent

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Kent,

I know you already said it wasn't you, but I consider the Yasusada hoax, complete with pencil drawing sent to APR, a great work of conceptual art. Concur?

Linh

mark wallace said...

I think it's interesting to look at Goldsmith's manifesto comments in the light of Oscar Wilde's interest in inverting the typical and expected comment. Keeping that in mind, it's hard to take KG's comments at face value. Instead they're meant more as perverse provocation--but whether they work effectively as such is another question. I find them completely hilarious, myself, at the same time that, as Kent says, I don't really believe him. But I'm not so sure those lines are meant to be believed.

One thing that's been on my mind lately regarding process-oriented texts--and that was discussed for a few days at the dcpoetry discussion list--was whether knowing that the work was created through semi-non-authorial controls changes what we look for when we read, and what the cnsequences of that change are. For instance, I myself never even attempt to read every line of a process-oriented text; I go there for the conceptual rather than for line-by-line attention. Of course as Barthes would note, none of us ever read every line of a text anyway. But how does the fact that with process-oriented texts, we know that there's no real point in even making the attempt change our habits of reading?

In a certain scenario, we would actually begin to decide that any given line of a text doesn't really matter that much--which is of course very true in one way, and unfortunately inattentive in another.

Perhaps it's possible that we spend too much time discussing the ethos involved in the creating of such texts, and maybe not enough in the ethos involved in reading them.

Anonymous said...

Linh,

On Yasusada as conceptual work... I've addressed this issue, actually, a number of times here and there. Most recently in the first answer to an interview done with me by Pedja Kojovic for a couple journals in the Balkans, English version of which is in the new Big Bridge, talking about the "conceptual" dynamics a work of writing can enter when unmoored from traditional bounds of Authorship. (Interesting fact about Kojovic-- in addition to being poet and critic he's a war photographer by profession (Reuters), was one of the main photo-journalists during the siege of Sarajevo and also the guy who took the first images of Saddam when he was pulled from his hiding-hole!)

But I've also always pointed out that these conceptual effects are after-the-fact, so to speak, largely unforseen and unplanned by Motokiyu. Which in some ways makes the whole matter more interesting, perhaps...

Kent

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Kent,

If you haven't seen this already, check out Kristen Schaffenberger's “The Disappearance of the Author? Hyperauthorship and the Case of Araki Yasusada” in Shifter 9:

http://www.shifter-magazine.com/shifter9_120.pdf

Linh

Linh Dinh said...

Much of conceptual art is in fact not self-effacing, since the artist is foregrounded as having a brilliant or merely clever idea. The name of the artist becomes the brand for the concepts. Often, his or her body is the art itself, if only for a moment. Display over, seen or unseen, what we're left with is the concept of "Vito Acconci masturbating under a gallery floor," or "Piero Manzoni selling tins of his merda."

Warhol supplanted his works as a focus of interest. Ditto Jeff Koons and, time will tell, maybe even Kenneth Goldsmith.

Linh

Linh Dinh said...

A few words about Jeff Koons: his boldest move as a conceptual artist was his marriage to the porn star/politician Cicciolina. Cicciolina herself became a conceptual artist by serving in parliament. Marrying each other, they foregrounded and authenticated themselves as unsurpassed kitsch meisters. The XXX photos were necessary to prove they weren't kidding. The birth of their son, Ludwig, and the ensuing custody battle, after only a year of matrimony, provided further proofs they were serious.

Linh

Samuel Vriezen said...

I'm not sure the blog over there is still taking comments, so I might as well re-post the question I had for K.G. over at Poetry here.

I'm a big John Cage fan and always interested in conceptualism in art. But what struck me was that the uncreative works discussed most seemed generally to be somehow big and spectacular. Can't you have an uncreative Tanka, if that's not too silly an example? I mean a single one?

One thing I always liked about Duchamp's ready mades is that they are so unassuming, inconspicuous, and that there are only a couple of them, really - doesn't there exist a little note of his saying something like "restrict the production of ready-mades, only one or two in a year" or something?

Murat said...

Samuel,

You are bringing an interesting point, that of quantity, which Mark also mentioned.

Murat

Samuel Vriezen said...

Perhaps it's possible that we spend too much time discussing the ethos involved in the creating of such texts, and maybe not enough in the ethos involved in reading them.

Now there's no real difference between writing and reading since it's both a question of putting content in a new form as Goldsmith has it. Perhaps, though, the best, most 'ethical' way of reading/writing such texts is to write them and the mere reader-reader is always lagging behind. Which realisation, of course, you can apply to all of literature.

Linh Dinh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mark wallace said...

Samuel, I can't really quite agree that there's no difference between writing and reading, whether in uncreative writing or other kinds of writing. I don't think the distinctions collapse; rather, I think they open out to new issues. I always wonder about the tendency to try to eliminate distinctions that comes out in a lot of innovative work; is that boundary crossing, or the erasing of real differences?

One key difference between the writer and the reader in this context (and perhaps all writing) is that the writer has to experience ALL the lines of a text in a way the reader never does. But in many conceptually created texts, no one assumes that the reader is even trying to read the whole text, or even some significant part of it necessarily. One simply isn't expected to notice it in that way; instead, one dips in here and there, picks it up, puts it down, etc.

This fact has consequences for the nature of reading that are real. I'm not characterizing those consequences as automatically negative, but what I was getting at was a need to think more specifically about what those consequences are.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Mark,

Process-oriented texts are rare, and make up only a tiny percentage of our reading experience. I don't see them changing our reading habits as much as, say, the email, which encourages quick, sloppy writing and reading, or the immateriality and ephemerality of texts on a computer screen. Am I misreading your concern?

Linh

mark wallace said...

Hi Linh:

Oh no, I'm not worried that process-oriented texts are destroying human capabilities which are perfectly capable of destroying themselves. I'm a big fan of such texts, frankly. But I don't think we investigate the nature of how they work as closely as we might. Not all process texts are the same text--but I'm concerned that the Goldsmith quote leaves that impression, to a certain extent. So I'm asking about the specific effects of reading those texts and what's at stake in them.

What I'm also interested in is the incredible surge of process text we're experiencing at this moment in the life of many poetry communities; is it simply cyclical fad or the nature of a few of our contemporary geniuses, or is the turn to them being prompted by a series of larger social conditions? It's, like, the thing that everybody is very into right now. Why?

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Mark,

I really didn't know there was a surge of process-texts. I doubt if there's a reciprocal surge of process-text readers. Individually, it's easier to surge with a process than with the "is this the right fuckin' word to use" method.

I prefer my conceptual art reduced to punchlines, although, I must admit, reading Kenny G. can be pleasurable, in small doses, not unlike listening to snatches of Steve Reich while driving. It's better with acid.

Linh

Samuel Vriezen said...

Mark, the idea that reading and writing are the same I paraphrased from Goldsmith's notes, and I'm not so sure about that myself.

When I'm confronted with a conceptual kind of text, or any text that seems "too big" in a way, I find myself desiring to read the whole thing - to have the experience whole. But I admit it doesn't always work or help and more often than not leaves me feeling guilty of missing the opportunity to have the full experience.

For example, Linh, I think Reich is always best heard as the full thing - in a concert setting. Particularly his best works, which I would consider to be mostly the works from the 70s.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Samuel,

I still think it's better to listen to Steve Reich while driving, preferably over 90 miles an hour, while tripping. You should try it!

Linh

mark wallace said...

Samuel, I think what you're saying makes a lot of sense.

I'm tending lately to think of many processual texts as enacting a relationship between significance and insignificance, as opposed either to the "pure" significance supposedly offered by conventionally generated texts (in which every word "counts") or KG's provocative but perhaps overdetermined reversal of the binary to "valuelessness" (i.e. insignificance). Such texts are often fields of attention, raising the question of what we as readers pay attention to (that is, give significance to) and what we pass by.

That's not quite an answer to your concern about the whole text, but I think it does give us a way of thinking differently about how we might experience that whole.

But hey, could be that Linh is tired of this discussion and just wants to party. And who can blame him, you know? What I want to know is, does he listen to Reich with ear-buds?

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Mark,

I consider "insignificance" a sedative. Encountered in a serious text (what's more serious than a POEM), we feel relief. Faulkner, "I'm tired of everyone's individuality and nauseated by my own."

As for earbuds, I didn't even know what they were until a minute ago, so no earbuds for me, or car, car stereo and canned Steve Reich.

Linh

mark wallace said...

Well, I hear you, Linh, and certainly one of the questions here is the dynamic between attention/inattention and significance/insignificance in process texts. But I also feel like I'm living in a culture that's trying to feed me sedatives all the time, and I'm taking far too many of them already. So I don't know. When I get tired of the seriousness, I can stop reading and turn on a basketball game.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Mark,

A banal thought just popped into my head, Underneath all these strategies of insignificance and neutrality are a deep cynicism and impotence masquerading as a sort of zen, it's all good, man, I'm going with the flow.

Or, you can say that they're reacting against the "significance" of politicized speech, such as these bloodcurdling, papal pronouncements from that heavy dude, Milosz:

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.

What wrong with songs of drunkards? Or readings for sophomore girls, for that matter? All of my readings are for sophomore girls.

Linh

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Mark,

In an ideal world, free people are free to say stupid things, publish reams of stupid books, to be silly and insignificant, but when you're complicit in murder and plunder, then your deliberate plunge into meaninglessness, into passivity, is just what Big Brother orders.

Linh

mark wallace said...

Hi Linh:

Well, it's funny, but I've been relatively critical of KG's quote to this point, but now I'm tempted to relatively defend it. I see his quote as intentionally provocative and meant to unsettle dominant notions of literary value, and in that sense it's not at all passive; if anything his work is marked by quite a bit of aggressiveness relative to literary norms and politics and their often pompous and bloated notions of seriousness.

In the larger realm of world politics, I certainly share some of your reservations, but that's why I think we would need to turn to texts themselves. Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day, for instance--as you know, she tries to write down everything that happens over a whole day, and does it in a day too--is tremendously engaged with world politics (not to mention much else) even as it's clearly a process text in which some sections are not as gripping. I haven't seen that sort of thing in KG's texts, but in recording so many things that occur, they show us a lot about the complexity of social interaction. The insistence on a "neutral" stance towards that recording troubles me on the one hand, but on the other hand it reveals a lot that might not get revealed if he was more determined to explain/understand (rather than simply record) those experiences. Nonetheless, there's no doubt that he disavows a larger political purpose in a way that many of us might find annoying. Still, he's not really very high on my list of Major Dupes of Big Brother.

It could be of course that I'm missing your point; there have been at least several layers of irony in your responses so far, and I had to look at this last post of yours several times before I came to the conclusion that you meant it--and I'm only 85% sure of that even now.

I've enjoyed this conversation a lot--thanks!--and it's helped me get at some problems that I've been thinking about for a few weeks now.

Linh Dinh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linh Dinh said...

Hi Mark,

In saying "In an ideal world, free people are free blah blah blah," I was elaborating on Milosz' "a connivance with official lies" condemnation. In Vietnam, the totalitarian apparatus hounds many poets into triviality. Having internalized which issues and words to avoid, they sing of the little spasms in their groins.

Last night I went to an opening of the sculptor Gerald Nichols (born 1938). Looking at his works, some of which were truly sublime, I realized that this man had doggedly followed his vision for decades now, channeling not just his intellect but intuitions and idiosyncracies. Such integrity cannot be evident in each sculpture, in each exhibition even, but it becomes clear over time. Standing in front a Nichols piece, I actually felt very silly for having echoed Milosz, if only for a sentence.

Linh

Patrick Herron said...

Man y'all really shouldn't go to Dirty Frank's without me. I was drinking there semi-regularly before I knew Linh. For all I know I was sitting next to Linh on more than one occasion. Seeing the two of you together, man, that would be special.

Linh Dinh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linh Dinh said...

Hi Samuel,

You wrote, "the uncreative works discussed most seemed generally to be somehow big and spectacular."

Once you've decided on the process, the mold, get the machine going, then the work can be churned out endlessly. The most monstrous, megalomaniac conceptual art are the earth works, where the planet itself is disfigured to make a statement. Walter De Maria arranged for 400 stainless steel poles to be installed in a grid measuring one mile by one kilometer. One can only guess what future generations will make of this masterpiece. Unlike a painting that has gone out of fashion, it can’t be be taken down to the basement. Tired of a book, you can always use it for sanitation. Remember to crumple the pages. Otherwise, they'll chafe your asshole.

Like you, I appreciate the tact and modesty of Duchamp.

Linh