In his 2014 Lecture - On Uncreative Writingin Serbia, Kenneth Goldsmith tells his audience: “The future of writing is emptiness. The future of writing is pointing."
He sounds like he might be speaking in Zen koans, riddles or anecdotes that reveal the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke awakening.
The idea of words "pointing" towards "emptiness" echoes scenes from the holy grail of Zen Buddhist texts, The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. The Buddha warns a bodhisattva named Mahamati, (in Sanskrit, "The Great Wisdom"), to not mistake the finger that points to the moon for the moon itself.
In his 2013 translation of The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, Red Pine writes, "Mahamati, if one person points to something with their finger, and a foolish person looks at their finger, they won’t know what they really mean. In the same manner, foolish people become attached to the finger of words."
The conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith is neither a Zen Master nor student of Zen. But perhaps his words point us to something.
Their emptiness. The moon. The future?
Is he a wordsmith?
A "smith," combined with another word, denotes a person skilled in creating something with certain material. A "wordsmith" is "a skilled user of words." And a goldsmith is someone skilled in creating something with gold. Maybe Kenneth Goldsmith treats words like fine material, sculpted with the hands of a craftsman. Are words a kind of gold to this smith?
On the back of the book jacket of No. 111, poet Charles Bernstein writes that Goldsmith's long poem is an “alphabetic bestiary of the ribs, joints, sinews, and bones of language’s alluring lore."
But Kenneth insists he doesn't write any of his books. He "transcribes" them.
In addition to transcribing many books, Goldsmith's a successful curator, a radio host, an aesthete and, perhaps, in some ways — an athlete. Several of his books — Fidget, Soliloquy and Day — have taken a kind of physical endurance to write for which few have the tenacity.
In Fidget, he attempts to transcribe his every movement in a single waking day. In Soliloquy, he transcribes every word he speaks in a week. In two similar but different books, Dayand The Day, he transcribes editions of The New York Times. He even "sings" the theories of Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin and Ludwig Wittgenstein in unusually wonderful vocal transcriptions of their texts.
In 2013, he appeared on The Colbert Report to speak about his book of transcriptions of archival radio and television broadcasts — Seven American Deaths and Disasters.Archived on Comedy Central, the conversation with Stephen Colbertunfolds like a scene from Beckett. When I watch it, I find it difficult to tell which persona is speaking to whom. At one point, the pair breaks out in lyric. together they recite the 19th century hit, “Oh! Susanna." It might be a collaborative poem.
Like David Bowie or Lady Gaga, Goldsmith's got adventurous style, one that draws onlookers' curiosity and delight. When he met Barack and Michelle Obama in 2011, he sported a fabulous paisley suit with matching saddle shoes-- an outfit for which Barack Obama expressed envy. To speak to Colbert, he arrived in nearly all-pink, apart from his one green sock and one red sock. With a dapper Dixieland hat, those mismatched socks and one leg crossed over the other, he looked like an American David Hockney.
Is he a king or a court jester?
In 2013, the MoMA crowned Kenneth Goldsmith their first poet laureate. Going by the username @kg_ubu on Twitter, he's king of UbuWeb, an online archive of the avant-garde that embraces, in his words, "the ridiculous and the sublime."
But his user name points equally to Alfred Jarry's 1896 avant-garde play Ubu Roi.
The Paris ReviewcallsUbu Roi an "inglorious slop-pail of a play." Like Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Jarry's Ubu Roi received a riotous response when it premiered and closed on the same night. William Butler Yeats attended, and some critics consider Ubu Roi, or King Ubu, the beginning of Surrealism, Dadaism and the Theatre of the Absurd.
It might be a kind of sublime ridiculousness, or a kind of ridiculous sublime thing, for @kg_ubu, or Kenneth Goldsmith, to walk in the line of great ones who not only sparked riots, but shifted norms in the art world. What Goldsmith does with language; however, is not all that new when you compare it to the history of sculpture or painting.
A century ago, Duchamp picked up a "Bedfordshire’ model porcelain urinal,” returned to his studio, turned it 90 degrees, so that it rested on its back, and signed it "R. MUTT 1917." Duchamp crowned the "readymade," or repurposed urinal, with the title Fountain. That ridiculously sublime thing is now seen as a defining moment in modern art. But when the object appeared in a gallery space for the first time, it was as much as practical joke, writes Martin Gayford for The Independent, as it was a check-mate move on conventional ideas about art.
Incited as blasphemous, Duchamp weathered ridicule in the same way Stravinsky did.
And in following those footsteps of sculptors and composers that have toed the line, Kenneth Goldsmith, or @kg_ubu, has had his own share of controversy.
Is he flawed?
In March 2015, Kenneth Goldsmith read out his poem, "The Body of Michael Brown" to an audience of around 75 people at Interupt 3 at Brown University. He reconfigured the autopsy report of a black teenager who’d been shot fatally by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri just over six months before.
Reports of Kenneth Goldsmith's performance at Hyperallergic suggest he read the text methodically andunemotionally. An audience member, Faith Holland, remembers him introducing the poem in a way that intimates the performance might have been about the quantifiable self. Holland reports, “no one knew what to do with that." The audience offered mild criticism, but on the whole thanked him for "bringing up this discussion."
InHarriet - a poetry blog, bloggerCaconrad compares Goldsmith's tweets to defend himself in the heat of the outcry to "a Bush administration Neocon deflecting attention from his actions and branding all who opposed his racist 'art' enemy combatant censors."
In a recent conversation with Vestoj,Kenneth Goldsmith reveals he's been subject to anti-Semitism
I avoided asking Kenneth Goldsmith about "The Body of Michael Brown." I avoided inciting pain - both that of Kenneth Goldsmith and anyone who might be upset by "The Body of Michael Brown."
But Kenneth Goldsmith wanted to speak about it. Avoidance around these things feeds fear.
Is he a yogi?
When I first heard Kenneth Goldsmith read, it was online, via a video of his performance of a chapter of his book No.111.
Each passage in No. 111 ends with sounds ending in “r." Parts of No. 111 read like a biography. But mostly, it reads like a visceral exploration of sounds.
In the performance I saw of No. 111, Goldsmith chants phonemes in a manner that lies somewhere between child’s play and religious reverence.
I mistook it for mantra.
In traditional mantra practice, the practitioner repeats Sanskrit sounds, words or phrases. Mantras often centre around vowel sounds or sets of phonemes. For example, a popular Buddhist mantra is Om Mani Padme Hum. It's a form of meditation, prayer or song. Tibetans carve the syllables onto "mani" rocks and special paper to remember it, to inscribe it in the world. Like good poetry, mantras have multiple layers of meaning.
Funnily enough, the title of Goldsmith’s book No. 111 bears the same digits as the number of “aspects” the goddess, Lalita, or “Devi” as she’s presented in the Shri Yantra. The Shri Yantra is a geometrical “diagram” of the human body, both as a microcosm and a macrocosm of the universe. Both Lalita and the Shri Yantra represent the creative feminine, or the universal mother unfolding in all of creation.
In Goldsmith's exhaustive experiments with language — the constraints, the transcriptions, the uncreative writing -- did Kenny get in touch with Lalita, the playful, loving goddess of manifold creation expressing herself through language?
Kenneth Goldsmith is not a Zen Master, unless he's one in drag. But he's a funny, flawed king of avant-garde. He's a skilled transcriber. He's a master of deskilling, or returning to what in Zen you might call a "beginner's mind." He's craftsman, a poet, an artist. And maybe by happenstance, with all his attention to language in all its beautiful bones and sinews, he's an accidental yogi.
Could you tell me a little bit about Kenneth Goldsmith when he was a kid? Did you have any creative, or "uncreative", passions, ones you now see influencing your career?
kenneth: As a child I was a collector of many things: rocks, shells, coins, stamps, and most relevant to my practice, music. From 1967 when I got my first LP, I became obsessed with all types of recorded music. I devoted my life to acquiring first LPs, then CDs, and now MP3s. Like the way I use language today, the collecting and organization of those things meant more to me than the music. I loved the labels, the credits, the album cover art, and the photos, the idea of watching a collection grow…more than the music itself. Not to say that I didn’t love the music, but I loved the process more. And it’s still the same with MP3s. On any given day, I download somewhere between one and ten albums through file-sharing (I don’t use pay sites). I have hard drives groaning with MP3s. As a result, I find the advent of streaming media really disconcerting. It fucks up my whole notion of collecting. There’s nothing to collect any more: they’ve done all the work for me! Now it’s only music. Blah.
I love that you play with your identity. Like David Bowie, you dress up in fancy clothes, challenge stereotypes and question the conviction of a single, static, authentic author or even, identity. Online, you assume different personas. Are there any overlaps between your play in the theatre of daily life, your play with identity both online and off and your writing?
Yeah, even in my private life, I dress up every day. I live in NYC where the street is a performance space. Millions of people are looking at you. You’ve got to meet that challenge. That’s why New York is perhaps the most self-conscious place on the planet. It’s not like you’re going to get in a car, buy a carton of milk at a gas station, and then head home without anyone seeing you. Even buying a carton of milk in NYC is a performance.
In your one of your “uncreative” conceptual writing pieces, The Day, you typed out word-for-word, figure-by-figure, the September 11th, 2001 edition of The New York Times. You call this “uncreative” writing, but when I read the discrete poems in The Day, I see individual expressive choices.
Conceptual poetry is often accused of removing the feeling, beauty and expression from poetry. But the movement of your textual choices moves me, sometimes imaginatively, sometimes sensually, sometimes emotionally. The real-life quality of reading a newspaper – re-arranged by another human hand – throws me back in a sensual, evocative way to that “day,” September 11th, 2001. Your re-imagining of the text, your reconfiguration, and the quiet quality of the words, seemingly absent from emotional intervention by the writer, fills the space of the page with nuance and silence within its strict constraint. To me, it is an act of beauty. Was there any emotional process for you in re-typing that “day” of The New York Times? Was it physically exhausting? What affected your choices when you arranged the text on the page?
So you’re conflating two projects of mine: Day (a transcription of the September 1, 2000 newspaper) and The Day (a transcription of the September 11, 2001 newspaper). But it doesn’t really matter. I applied the identical process to each and one came out flat and dull, and the other was a tear jerker. In this way, depending what I chose to transcribe I could be any kind of a writer. I could be a romantic writer or a comedic writer or a spiritual writer… whatever. Through the act of copying, I wrote two very different books by using the identical process on similar materials.
It was physically exhilarating, like doing yoga for a year. All my decisions were made beforehand so all I had to do was to go on auto-pilot for a year and a half. It was like painting by numbers. It was heaven.
In Wasting Time on the Internet, you argue against the common anxiety in our culture that the Internet is speeding up the world, spinning us out of control and turning us into anti-social, disembodied zombies. “While we have the illusion that things are speeding up,” you write that we have instead reached a “stasis” and are moving in another direction, not towards unfettered growth, but towards “entropy.” Can you explain more what you mean more by “entropy” here in a technological sense?
Thus far, the game has been all about speed. But when speed is factored out of the equation, we enter a phase where the mechanics begin to disappear. Since the web’s mechanics are mathematical, the purpose of the web shifts from order to disorder, from logic to illogic. The moment a medium becomes invisible is the moment when that medium finds its reason for being. We are at the moment now. Think of what happened when reception was no longer an issue in television—the advent of cable. Suddenly you stopped thinking about the medium and content began leading the way. In the first burst of cable TV was the great folk expression of community-based cable. Once the digital divide ceases to be an issue, then a lovelier disorder and illogical will take over (which, like television, will lead to consolidation and a stagnation of the medium).
You write a fair bit about the Internet as a massive archive. In his 1995 book, Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida suggests our impulse to preserve has psychic origins. I sometimes imagine the Internet as a kind of Jungian collective unconscious. However crude it may be at times – the Internet contains an insurmountable amount of material, that at heart, we can never know totally. But Derrida suggests that unlike the traditional archive, an online archive has no impulse to destroy; there may be a Google drive, but not a death drive. In what ways do you agree or disagree?
The web is accumulative in ways that material media weren’t. The web’s redundancy ensures that quite a bit of it will be around for a long time, and most importantly, at little or no cost. The problem with analog accumulation was its preservation, storage, and subsequent expense. The digital ecosystem presents a new archiving nightmare: that of total recall and permanence.
What are your own habits of archiving and note-taking? Are you sentimental? Do you, like Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes keep note cards? Have you a notebook? Do you record impressions into your phone? How do you preserve memories or the details of life? Or do you?
I used to feel that my works marked my life in a diaristic way. There was a time when I could, just by looking at an artwork I made from a previous time, recall my life in its entirety the way it was when I made it. It was like hearing a certain pop song from when you were a teenager, and how in those three minutes you could be completely transported back to that moment. But then, as I got older, that stopped happening. Where it was once rare for me to publish a book, now it happens constantly. It’s not as special as it was. I feel as I get older, it’s a bit of a slide and a blur, one thing, one year, one event sort of melds into another. It has to do with the quantity of information as well.
Clearly the digital environment has made it possible for me to publish all these book in ways that would’ve been impossible before. I mean, it used to be so hard to publish a book. Now it’s so easy. Everyone publishes books — lots of them. Same with photos. I take a gazillion photos and keep every one of them. Of course I never go back and look at them. We actually have a photo album from the 80s and 90s, which I do in fact return to quite often, most likely because the amount of material —in combination with the materiality of the photos—are digestible. My iPhoto album is a blur, a slide, a flow. I’m afraid I’ve given up trying to make sense of it all. Instead, I simply keep accumulating with the idea that perhaps one day I, or someone else, will disentangle the archival monster that my life (and by extension, all our lives) have become.
Sometimes when I read your poetry, I am struck by the absence – by what is not said. In Fidget, you describe in fine detail the execution of “every” movement of your physical body in one waking day. But when reading Fidget, I see you’ve set out to do the impossible. No one could ever record every movement of their physical body. Unconscious movements happen internally, and we’re not aware of all the involuntary movements of our physical selves. In your practice, how do you address what can’t be known, what can’t be written, what can’t be remembered or what can’t be archived?
I begin with the premise that everything I do will be a failure. Of course Fidget failed and even in a bigger way, so did Capital. But I’m pleased with that failure. I think it’s honest. The idea that Capital could somehow even begin to honestly describe 100 years in the life of a city like New York in a thousand pages is a joke. It leads me to reflect how false histories are. If we were being honest with ourselves, we’d admit that all history is a fiction but of course no one will admit that. However, one of the obligations of the avant-garde is to pull back the blinds and reveal truths that others dare not say. They have too much at stake to say such things. We, on the other hand, have nothing to lose.
There’s a meme floating around that parodies Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It suggests that to reach self-actualization, we must have our needs of esteem, love and belonging, safety, the physical body – and wifi – met. What do you think of this joke? Do you think the Internet plays – or might ever play – a role in self-actualization?
Sure — it’s not a joke. Take away someone’s wifi or device and they become socially, politically and economically alienated.
In Wasting Time on the Internet, you refer to the word “constellation” a few times. You quote Walter Benjamin and his idea of “dialectical constellation.” Systems of knowing, of truth, of opinion, of perhaps even metaphysical contradictions, exist in the form of a constellation. How is the Internet like a constellation to you? And how might that constellation shape the way we experience ourselves, each other and knowledge?
My original idea of constellations came from the Brazilian concrete poet Augusto de Campos, who did a brilliant series of visual poems called ‘constellations.’ For me, they predicated the internet: they were verbal and visual, they were universally understandable. By highlighting the visual and audio dimensions, they inverted everything we were brought up to believe about language. The constellation is non-hierarchical; it has no center; and is temporary and unstable, very much like life itself. A series of relational points, the constellation is organic and fluid, which speaks truth to me. If we call the internet a constellation, then that’s the sort of place where I want to live.
At the Dialectics of Liberation Conference in London in 1969, (archived on Youtube as Allen Ginsberg in London-Ah Sunflower), Allen Ginsberg addresses a camera. He sits in a garden in London and offers imagined viewers advice on the imagination, the physical body and their place in technology. He encourages viewers to be aware of the images on the screen as only images and to tune into both their physical selves and the sense of the other person on the other side of the screen. How do you think a conscious relationship to the images on our screens and our attention to our physical bodies matters when we use technology? In Wasting Time on the Internet,you describe conducting a workshop in Berlin where you invited participants to “waste time on the internet” in front of 100 strangers. You describe one woman’s ease and flow when browsing and how her physical presence affected her online activity as well as the physical presence of the entire auditorium, as if it were a “yoga studio.” Are you conscious of your physical self when you waste time on the internet? How much do you think an attention to the physical body and the bodies of others matter when browsing online?
It’s not something that we think of too often, but I think we should consider it more. After all, while we are talking to bots (it’s good to be mindful of the bots in the sense of mindfulness) we’re also communicating to another human being (or in some cases many, many human beings). And the words we use can really affect those bodies. I remember recently reading an article about—I think it was the drummer of the band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Evidently, this guy was a really great drummer but as the years passed he suffered a stroke. He heroically still went out on tour but obviously, his drumming wasn’t what it once was. He would go home after those concerts and read the shit fans were saying about how bad his drumming was. As a result of those comments, he went home and blew his brains out. So, yes, the web is very bodily. We need to be mindful of this when we’re online.
You describe using Siri to assist you in writing when you run in Manhattan. You write, “I’m in a semiconscious state: my feet are moving and my body is sweating. The thoughts are really flowing now, so much so that I almost forget I’m running as I float effortlessly above the pavement on a runner’s high.” The description reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi’s descriptions of “flow states,” when the body and mind exist in a pleasurable mode of creative activity. What I find interesting is how your physical body appears to affect the flow of your ideas. The “thoughts are really flowing,” as your “feet are moving.” It reminds me of William Wordsworth, who composed his poems aloud when walking, much to the interest of the locals, who describe Wordsworth talking to himself. How often do you use Siri to write your books and how often do you “write” when you are physically active? Does running help you write?
Running is a great way to think. I get the best thinking done when I run. And when I have the mindfulness, I take out my phone and record my thoughts into Siri. But it’s not the way I usually write books. I find I write normative prose like this interview or Wasting Time when I’m on planes, away from the distraction of the online environment. I can and do write with the web humming in the background — I’ve learned to multi-process —but what’s most interruptive to my practice is life itself: the ringing of the doorbell or my kids needing snacks, which physically moves my body away from the screen, really breaking my flow. In front of my screen, even with digital distraction, I have flow.
When I first read an excerpt from your book Fidget, I suggested to a friend that we perform it together, that she read it and I dance it. I still hope to do that someday. But the way you wrote this book enacted its own performance. You recorded every physical movement you made between 10 am and 11 on Bloomsbury Day, June 16th, 1997. There’s durational quality to your writing, one that reminds of Marina Abramović or many performance artists whose physicality comes to the forefront of their work. In the same way Abramovićs enacts a public vulnerability, you invite readers into an intimate experience of your physicality through reading. The last sentence of the book reminds me not only of James Joyce’s phonetic use of language, but language’s vitality, its physical presence. “The muddle is in the sounddance,” Joyce writes in Finnegan’s Wake. To me, the final sentence in Fidget evokes not only exhaustion both for the reader and the narrator, but a liminal space between waking and dreaming. The sounds fall apart and their somatic presence to me forefronts as the “words” drop away from their absent signifiers. Can you share more about your experience of your physical body when writing this book? Were you “awake” the whole time, attentive to everything consciously, or did you ever enter other states of mind, ones that bridged the states of waking and dreaming?
“Eyelids open. Tongue runs across upper
lip moving from left side of mouth to right
following arc of lip. Swallow....pil fo cra
gniwollof tfel ot htuom fo edis
thgir morf gnivom pil reppu ssorca snur
eugnoT Eyelids close.”
~The first and last lines of Fidget, (2000)
It’s funny — Fidget was interpreted by three dancers a few years ago in Paris. It turns out to be the perfect score for dance. It was really beautiful! I was very inspired by performance art and Judson Church dance. I thought, why not present this as poetry?
The book was really challenging to write. It took me an hour to get out of bed. And it was really tedious. I remember falling asleep for an hour (there’s an hour missing somewhere in the afternoon—another failure, for surely I moved when I slept), then waking up with the horror and fear that I’d have to do this for another, oh, ten hours. So that’s when I went out, bought a fifth of Jack Daniels, and walked over to the West Side and sat on a loading dock drinking the whisky. I got so drunk that the recorder clicked off around 11pm, thankfully. So it was a failure and a disaster but created its own type of beauty. But it was never that space between waking and dreaming when I was doing it. It was full consciousness, full time.
In your introduction to Uncreative Writing, you quote Marjori Perloff’s term “unoriginal genius,” one that describes the “tendency emerging in literature” where a “genius” is a master “of information and its dissemination.” The “romantic figure of the isolated genius” is “outdated.” When I read that, the “original” meaning of the word “genius” comes to mind.
In the original Latin, a “genius” means an attendant spirit, one that is unattached, but attendant, to the artist. A human “genius” in that sense is the person who is in touch with his or her attendant spirit.
As we move away from the static sense of an authentic author in conceptual writing, I sometimes wonder if we are moving closer to the ancient sense of the artist as being in touch with a “spirit,” (however you want to define that word), outside the static sense of self. What is your interpretation of the word “genius?”
I’m suspicious of genius. Remember, that’s Marjorie’s term—a literary critic—not mine, an artist's. I prefer the idea of ‘deskilling.’ In a time in which many human skills can be done better by a computer, the idea is to do what the computer can’t do. And that’s to be dumb and perverse. Computers don’t understand perversity and dumbness in the sense of my essay ‘Being Dumb.’ They can only be smart or be in error. It is that space in between smart and dumb that contemporary artists have inhabited beautifully. It’s very complex and probably can’t be programmed. So I’m thinking of John Waters or Duchamp. It’s a sideways sort of a thing. So deskilling is brilliant in that computers can’t quite understand that sort of logic. I prefer that oblique way of thinking and being to the directionality that computers are only good at.
Free question. If there’s ever been a question that you’ve always wanted to answer but never been asked, feel free to do that here.
Most people are afraid to ask me about my Michael Brown controversy. I think it’s because they’re so scared that they’ll say something wrong about race that they’ll be in for the treatment that I got. In my life, that subject is completely taboo, not of my own making but by others out of fear. When we let fear enter our lives, we let small minds win. When we have to restrict ourselves to what we can or cannot address, we squelch discourse and understanding. The worst thing we can do is to run from difficulty for it keeps fear and terror alive.
How do you reconcile this misunderstanding of your artistic intentions? Or can you? How do you work with others’ misunderstanding of your intentions? How do you work equally with your own defensiveness, your own fears perhaps, so that they don’t create walls around your experience and the controversy? Maybe provoking me to ask you this question it is one way.
My scandal was an aesthetic one, wrapped in trumped up charges of racism. People hate so much what I had brought to poetry that they had to figure out some way to bring me down. And when I wandered into what they considered to be their turf, they pounced. You see, had it been only about racism, there would’ve been forgiveness, conversation, and some sort of reconciliation, since the piece was well-intentioned but flawed. Okay, live and learn, but there was none of that. There was just an onslaught of ad hominem attacks that continue to this day.
Anti-Semitism plays strongly into this as I’ve said in the Vestoj piece. I created a space in poetry that was unimaginable to poets — formed a new school of poetics, created a new way of writing, built the web’s largest archive of avant-garde works, went to the White House, was MoMA poet laureate, etc., etc. And it was too much for poetry, whose ambitions are the lowest and laziest in the world. So I was seen as a usurper, taking up too much oxygen in a tank where there is no oxygen. It was charges of racism wrapped up in jealousy. As I like to say, at the end of the day, #allcareersmatter.