Ubuweb's "Uncreative" Poet Speaks About Textual Readymades
By Eli Epstein-Deutsch
posted: 03-27-11
Kenneth Goldsmith at the Whitney, pontificating notoriously over Conceptual vs. Flarf poetry reading
Image Source

Cabinet Magazine's Gowanus HQ regularly hosts illuminating panels, exhibitions, and lectures on avant-garde practice, conceptual art, and the history of science and culture. Stiff drinks are served in conjunction.

March 18th's event was no exception. That typically well-devised evening, titled “Clipping, Copying, and Thinking,” brought together Harvard historian Ann Blair and renegade, Duchampian poet Kenneth Goldsmith, whose site has been dubbed "The Wikileaks of the Avant Garde": at least according to Goldsmith's own Twitter feed. The two were there to discourse on strategies of textual appropriation and management in an age of proliferating information (this could refer to the present or Early Modernity, Blair's specialty, a time of publishing expansion). The dialogue was hosted by Cabinet editor D. Graham Burnett, a youngish, pale, elegantly cheekboned Princeton professor sporting a vanishingly narrow tie.

Blair, who has written extensively on the subject, kicked off the proceedings with a recounting of notetaking culture from Classical Antiquity to the late Renaissance. The central theme linking these periods was a concern with personal, mental and rhetorical cultivation. Figures such as Quintillian would stockpile and index citations as an arsenal of examples and anecdotes to aid decision-making and oratory. The Renaissance, faced with the trauma of the loss of Antiquity's riches, added preservation and curation as motivating factors for compulsive note-taking, arranging, and intelligent hoarding.


All these activities, Goldsmith pointed out when he spoke, were about "selecting the best bits." He was interested in something different. What exactly? Goldsmith is known for such provocations as retyping one complete issue of the New York Times from end to end (Day, 2003) and publishing it as a book of poetry, and transcribing one year's worth of Weather reports (Weather, 2005). He seems interested in highlighting the banal, what is merely there for the taking: in other words, not "the best bits." He has announced the goal of purging himself of creativity by age 40. While Duchamp may have provided "permission" for this practice, as Goldsmith put it, Duchamp himself was focused on a quite selective aestheticism. The Renaissance scholars, for their part, sought to develop and enhance their subjective spheres through systematic assimilation of external material. Goldsmith, on the other hand, appears to want to efface his subjectivity to the point where he is fashioned as a glorified transcriptionist.

But of course, there is a paradox. Goldsmith, like Duchamp, expects to receive credit for his rote, plagiaristic works, and indeed he has been the recipient of multiple awards and professorships. In the workshop Goldsmith teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, he assigns his students the task of typing up 5 pages of their choice and turn it in to him, an activity that would lead to disciplinary action anywhere else in the University. According to Goldsmith, the results of this exercise are "very personal." Choices the student makes such as what writing they choose, how faithful they render typography, layout, paper quality, etc. reveals layers of quirk and distinctive individuality. Goldsmith points this out with evident relish.

So then, is the point subjectivity after all? The eminent moderator Burnett sniffed out this possibility, and inquired if Goldsmith were not really a crypto- or latent humanist. Goldsmith freely admitted that he was somewhere in between. He said that among his students there were more severe radicals, who advocate the utter expunging of all traces of subjective decision making, thus transcending the Duchampian legacy and that of Renaissance humanism to boot. They have called for the complete transcription of the Internet, an idea which makes Goldsmith shudder. "I'm actually kind of old-fashioned," he says. Further into the frontier of post-human poetic practice lies such beasts as "dark data" or symbolic writing produced by computers for computers to read.

There is clearly much to be explored further about conceptual/digital/readymade textual practices, and I'll continue to post on the issue. Hopefully, we'll also be able to get Professor Goldsmith over to, there are some things we need to discuss with him. We will transcribe the results of the conversation here.

Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, Goldsmith's newanthology, comes out via Columbia University Press in September, 2011.

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