4/4/08

Our Bodies, Our Selves

I wrote this for the Harriet Blog but since there's a glitch at their website, I'll post it here first:


How do you square this:

Now is the time of possibility we can be everyone and no one at all. With digital fragmentation any notions of authenticity and coherence have long been wiped. When we're everywhere and nowhere at once -- pulling RSS feeds from one server, server-side includes from another, downloading distributed byte-size torrents from hundreds of other shifting identities -- such naïve sentiments are even further from what it means to be a contemporary writer. Identity politics no longer have to do with the definition of a coherent self, rather it has to do with the reconstructed distributed, fragmented, multiple and often anonymous selves that we are today. We're infinitely adaptable and changeable minute-to-minute. [Kenneth Goldsmith in the Harriet Blog]
With this?:

By the time I was diagnosed with colon cancer, the sense of my own physical fragility and vulnerability had been pretty much pounded into me by my HIV diagnosis, my bout with Bell’s palsy (especially frightening since there are no treatments if the facial paralysis doesn’t end on its own accord), my subsequent hospitalization for a shingles infection in my inner ear which left me with only half the hearing in my right ear, my bouts with kidney disease and recurrent kidney stones (mostly caused by various HIV medications), the hearing distortion in my left ear which no manner of tests has been able to diagnose, let alone treat, an episode of secondary polycythemia, a condition in which one produces too many red blood cells which also earned me a hospital stay, since my blood was turning to jello and I was in imminent danger of a stroke, and my osteoporosis, because of which I’ve suffered several painful bone fractures. This not to mention more mundane matters like my low testosterone and my high blood pressure (the latter has come down since I’ve started exercising and losing weight). [Reginald Shepherd in the Harriet Blog]
Could someone with even a single serious illness believe that he can be "everyone and no one at all"? That's he's "infinitely adaptable and changeable minute-to-minute"? I don't think so. Hell, even a simple headache brings me back to my senses, reminds me of the limitations of my body and mind.

For a while now, Kenneth Goldsmith has being extolling the virtues of uncreative writing and unoriginality while dismissing those who are still invested in exploring and expressing the self as stuck in some sort of Romantic rut. Humanism itself is ridiculed since we have, according to Goldsmith, entered a post-human era. Kenneth's heroes are "unreal" icons such as Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Madonna and Barry Bonds.

Kenneth Goldsmith is also the editor of 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 by his person, his mask, his 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 hats and sunglasses, etc. In 1965, Warhol literally supplanted his art with his first museum show at Philadelphia’s Instistute of Contemporary Art. Anticipating a large crowd at the opening, the organizers removed Warhol's paintings from the walls. This is the first and last time 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 by firemen through a hole they sawed through the ceiling. 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. The hot/cold dichotomy has always been a staple of the art world and attributable not just to the fashion, style of the moment but to the temperament of each individual, whose uniqueness even a Kenneth Goldsmith has to concede, although he simply calls it "taste." What makes one uncreative writer better than another is his superior taste, and so we’re back to the sad self, after all, since even ready-made clothes (and hats) make the individual.

A person is defined by the objects he makes, buys, speaks of or merely points to. Kenneth Goldsmith is that uncreative or Ubuweb guy, two very specific if grossly reductive definitions that don’t even begin to describe the man but, then, nothing does. Otherwise, we wouldn't need literature and bad marriages. I’m not Kenneth Goldsmith not just because I don’t wear a stack of bowler hats but for innumerable other reasons. He wouldn’t want to be me, either. Here, I’m reminded of what James Baldwin said at Berkeley, that no white man, no matter how wretched, would want to trade places with him. This observation has been incorporated into a Chris Rock routine. There’s also this oil-on-canvas Richard Prince joke:

White man: "I don't know what to do. My
house has burned to the ground, my wife died,
my car's been stolen, and the doctor said, I
gotta have a serious operation."
Black man: "What you kickin' about, you white
ain't you?"
Minus our clothes, we become even more distinctive, since no two bodies can share the same destiny. Each of us eat, make love, smoke, throw up and die alone, no matter how many similars we’re surrounded by. Sex and sickness don't lie. And yet we’re not condemned to writing just about ourselves since we have restless eyes, ears and minds that can contain boatloads. I’m not here to express me, me alone but as many selves as possible, including you if I’m lucky. Even if I simply select, copy, paste and become uncreative tomorrow, my choices of what to notice will still define me.

Many people have complained about Ron Silliman’s phrase “School of Quietude,” since much of this writing is hardly quiet. Perhaps Silliman is mocking these poets’ overheated, earnest concern with the personal, autobiographical “I,” their narcissism, even solipcism. They check in often on what has happened to this Self, what it has seen or thought. Perhaps we should call this tendency Selfism. You cozy up to a Selfist poem to spend quality time with the Selfist poet, to be intimate with him or her. Best to read it with the author’s photo in view. But are “post-avant” poets really less self-centered? I seriously doubt it, although they tend to be more sly and tactful about their self-regard, self-love and self-promotion. As the at times self-effacing, more often self-trumpeting Kent Johnson asked Kenneth Goldsmith:

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?
But anonymity is not something we can strive for since we already have it in spades. It’s our birth and death rights. In between, we don’t have much of a choice but to entertain and bore each other with our bodies, our selves.

[Charles Ray's "Oh Charlie! Oh Charlie! Oh Charlie!"]

5 comments:

Patrick said...

The dialectic that fuels so many such blogosphere posts, and contemporary avant-garde impulses, that between selfish/quietist and non-egoic/disruptive poetics (whether or not the processes and products live up to the distinctions coherently)--well, it's tired. The identity politics RS is nodding toward without really arguing from--including critical race theory, queer theory, and disability/dependency theory--recognize the dialectical impasse here as historical, or the best articulations do. I would like to see those with an interest in "poetic invention" historicize itself a little better, meaning with a little more at stake and a lot less contrivance. I read in the work of RS, KG, and the debates at Harriet and similar venues as crucial and possibly important, but also as more interested in sustaining themselves than working out something new from where we have come. But I suspect this has less to do with any failings in the participants than the venues, which do not really lend themselves toward debate as beautifully as they do toward archival functions (witness, yes, UBUweb).

Uva Hardin said...

It's impossible to square Goldsmith with Sheppard. One is a statement of poetics, the other a report of health. It's apples and oranges. It's like comparing a first-person account of a tragedy in Rwanda with a wrap-up of a Knicks game; both live in the same newspaper; each serves different functions; each elicits different emotions. Instead I'd be curious to see a toe-to-toe poetics comparison of both or "poetry" by both, but this? Nah. You're off the mark here.

Bill Knott said...

well, I'm a SOQ poet, so maybe that disqualifies me from commenting, but this question/debate interests me, especially the "unoriginality" aspect . . . I recently wrote, as I've often done in my writing, an imitation of a poet I admire, in this latest case Charles Tomlinson—I published the poem on my
blog last week, but felt constrained to introduce it with an apology, as if writing a poem in imitation of another poet were something shameful, and I guess it is . . . . James Tate once scorned scolded me by saying, "Everytime I read a poem of yours, I can tell what poet you were reading just before you wrote it."

Bill Knott said...

. . . Goldsmith's unoriginality as virtue must be different than my brand of imitative unoriginality,

which in practice in my poetry has proved that I'm weak and impressionable, lacking in conviction
and character . . .

Sean Bonney said...

Uva, are you saying by this that a person's poetics are entirely seperable from their experience, their circumstances etc. Thats a capitulation to late capitalist alienation, as is most of Goldsmith's work.