by Michael Jauchen
by Kenneth Goldsmith
Columbia University Press, 2011
272 pages / $23.95 buy from Columbia UP
1. Uncreative writing is situating. A détournement. A patchwriting. Goldsmith: “context is the new content.”
2. A portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé with “A Throw of the Dice” inserted three times:
3. Uncreative writing is language as pure material. Quantity over quality. The digital-age inheritor of Stein, Concrete Poetry, Mallarmé, Herbert, Apollinaire, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. It sees the internet as language abundant, language swim, all text thrum. Goldsmith: “What we take to be graphics, sounds, and motion in our screen world is merely a thin skin under which resides miles and miles of language.”
4. Much of what Goldsmith says uncreative writing is is stuff I already know. Through Flarf, through FC2 and Les Figues Press, through Goldsmith’s own work like Day or Traffic or Sports, through Walter Benjamin and Gertrude Stein and Vanessa Place, through this blog, through Ron Silliman’s blog, through David Markson, through any number of conceptual writers working today.
If you’re familiar with these things too, you’ll nod your head and move along through a number of the early essays here. If you’re not familiar with these things, this book’s a solid place to begin.
5. But I’m not sure Goldsmith thinks he’s saying anything radically new with these essays as much as he’s articulating (again) a stance toward language that should be obvious to anyone writing, but still, for some reason, isn’t.
A sense of perplexity—maybe even frustration—about a large segment of contemporary writing runs through the early essays here.
Goldsmith wonders: What happened that made most 20th and 21st-century writers miss the work of Duchamp, LeWitt, and Warhol? Why did conceptualism take off so readily in the visual arts and not in the literary? What is taking writing so long to mine the possibilities of the conceptual text? What’s with all the holdover from literary Romanticism? The stuff about genius? The stuff about ego and originality? All that stuff about having a voice?
Still worthwhile questions.
6. Here’s Goldsmith’s annotated copy of Charles Bernstein’s “Lift Off,” a piece of uncreative writing Bernstein built by transcribing the characters from the correction tape of his manual typewriter.
Here’s a recording of Goldsmith performing it.
I like this poem because it’s hard to see it being made today. I like this poem because of its impossibility.
And I like Goldsmith’s performance of it because, even with all that, he shows how the thing’s still legible.
7. When’s the last time you typed another writer’s story word for word?
8. Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein with excerpts from The Making of Americans inserted:
9. My undergraduate students, all digital natives, tend to balk at the uncreative exercises—cut ups, fake translations, Oulipo-inspired obstructions—I give them.
When I tell them I retyped Carver and Hemingway stories as an undergraduate, they look at me as if I didn’t have enough to do when I was 19.
When I tell them to give their poem to a classmate to cut it up and remix it, they don’t like to do it.
They treat each other’s words delicately. I think a large majority of them are afraid they’re going to break their partner’s poem.
During office hours, many of them tell me they want to find their voice. They feel they have stories to tell, something to say, a deep corner in themselves they want to express. They’re hoping creative writing will help them find out who they are.
10. Invariably, it’s the uncreative exercises I assign that lead to a class’s moments of best language, the moments when words get renewed, where surprise happens, those moments when my students put words together in ways that would be unlikely (or impossible) outside the confines of the assignment.
But most of my students remain most doggedly invested in their creative assignments (i.e. “Write any story you want”). When they read these to the class—the domestic drama narrated by the family cat, the child as secret serial killer, the priest revealed as a pedophile in the story’s last line—they read them seriously, passionately.
In these kinds of exercises, the students own the words. Or at least they think they do. And it’s that ownership, that authorship, they think, that makes the words good.
11. In the classroom, I many times feel a similar sense of perplexity as Kenneth Goldsmith.
12. A portrait of Georges Perec with the opening lines of Species of Spaces inserted:
13. The later essays here are especially good. Goldsmith is really smart about The Arcades Project, about Andy Warhol’s Diaries and his novel, a. Lots of great stuff on James Boswell, too. Goldsmith is best when he’s reaching for concise definitions, when he’s looking to name the aims of uncreative and conceptual writing with exactness.
I especially like the times when Goldsmith overreaches a bit.
14. For example, “Uncreative writing is a postidentity literature.”
15. A big claim to make, though I understand the impulse. A stated goal of a large swath of conceptual writing is the removal of the author; the text that creates itself, a text that originates solely in the combinatorial possibilities of language, a text without the trappings (and nagging metaphysical implications) of authorial inspiration.
A text like Christian Bök’s The Xenotext Experiment.
But the claim’s also troubling in that it diminishes the ways identity and subjectivity can’t help but inform language. To speak of a postidentity literature still seems steeped in inescapable questions of authority and power.
(This, by the way, is also a claim conceptual writing isn’t necessarily clear on itself. For example: Les Figues’s I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. There was a great series of essaysabout this collection on HTMLGIANT last summer. Lindsay Turner also has a great review of it in a recent Boston Review where she confronts the problems of an anthology of conceptual writing that uses gender as an organizing device.)
16. Or, midway through the book: “But uncreative writing is truly populist.”
Then toward the end, about the class, “Uncreative Writing,” Goldsmith teaches at Penn: “But I do wish to raise a red flag: I work at a privileged university, perhaps one of the most privileged in the world. […] The students, as a whole, come from economically empowered backgrounds; those who aren’t are well subsidized by the university. They arrive in class with the latest laptops and smartphones and seem to have every imaginable piece of the latest software on their machines. […] In short, it’s an ideal environment in which to practice the sort of techno-utopianism I preach with enabled students ready, willing, and able to jump right in.”
17. I’m not faulting Goldsmith at all for these moments and contradictions. If anything, I like these problems because they show conceptual writing’s still thinking seriously about itself, which is more than I can say for a lot of contemporary writing.
18. I wonder if conceptualism is ready to give up the author. Is that proposition still too frightening? Is that proposition even possible? Is there really that big of a difference between an “authorial hand” (a term Goldsmith uses) and an “author”?
(Cf. “May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?” “No, it did lots of other things too.”)
19. Another example: When I was in graduate school, Christian Bök visited to read from Eunoia (a book I love) and to perform a number of sound poems. During the Q&A, an audience member raised her hand and shouted a long string of gibberish at Bök. I saw it as an obvious and playful nod to Bök’s reading.
I was surprised when Bök didn’t take it that way. He looked like he took it as an affront to his person. He looked mocked and hurt. Then, without offering any response, he went on to the next question.
The very next question: “Mr. Bök, I’m really interested in your writing process. Can you tell us a little bit about that?”
And he did.
20. To contrast: The steel elegance of Vanessa Place’s work. Her Dies: A Sentence. The simple appropriative act behind her Statement of Facts, a 400-page sampling of court case documents she’s collected during her day job as an attorney.
It’s Place’s clinical stance toward what she does, her distance from being “a writer,” that appeals to me. She’s cold and formal as a reader, often wearing a nondescript gray business suit. Her voice refuses any noticeable modulation or emotion. But the effect is powerful, disarming. It’s like the words have been there all along and she’s just the bureaucrat hired to report them. Like she could be anyone. Like she doesn’t even need to be there at all.
21. Kafka: “…the best of what I have written is based upon this capacity to die content.”
22. A portrait of Andy Warhol as an acrostic of “Ondine.”
23. Can uncreative writing really exist at a university? Is subversive recontextualization something I can teach?
Can we see Duchamp taking questions about his grading rubrics during office hours? Can we see him succumbing to departmental pressure to join an ad-hoc subcommittee on non-traditional learning opportunities?
Aren’t I the dominant context my students should be resituating?
24. Should a conceptual writer even have a name?
25. Tan Lin: “There should be no ecstatic moments of recognition.”
Goldsmith: “No matter what we do with language, it will be expressive. How could it be otherwise?