01
Jun
09

Kenneth Goldsmith (Thesis Draft Excerpt)

Thesis excerpt (draft) from section on Kenneth Goldsmith:

* * *

The popularity of so-called ‘conceptual writing’, to the extent that ‘popularity’ is an appropriate term to characterize such a marginal field, is largely owed to the work of Kenneth Goldsmith. Originally trained as a sculptor at the Rhode Island School of Design, Goldsmith became increasingly interested in Duchampian word-play (for example making a 300 pound sculpture of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book) and eventually devoted himself to solely text-based work. Later, as the founder of UBU web and a Senior Editor at PennSound, Goldsmith established himself as the preeminent champion and archivist of conceptual writing.

In much of his more recent work, Goldsmith has produced enormous volumes of text that are almost the literary equivalents of Andy Warhol films. For example, in ‘Day’, Goldsmith retypes the text of the daily NY Times newspaper from left to right, making no distinction between different columns, stories, or advertisements. The result is a document that estranges its source text while remaining entirely faithful. Hidden within the mass of text are strange and totally unexpected conjunctions and abutments of language, many of the most exciting of which only the most dedicated reader would both slogging his way into. Still, these moments of chance beauty exist, they may and must, and so are tantalizing. The pleasure of this text comes from the adventure of the search and from the thought of the text not-yet-read as much as the reading experience itself.

Texts like ‘Day’ also provide excellent examples of the fruitful combination of aleatoric and constraint practices. Another example of such combination is Goldsmith’s book ‘The Weather,’ a text entirely composed of the transcriptions of one minute weather reports given over the course of a year. ‘The Weather’ uses the aleatory to highlight the structure and repetition of received language, thereby using the aleatory to perform an analogous critique to Queneau’s of surrealism, despite the fact that Queneau saw his critique as precisely a critique of the aleatory. Of course, the kind of aleatorics by way of chosen source text that we see in ‘Day’ and ‘The Weather’ are reminiscent of, albeit not identical to, the N+7 method. That is, insofar as they are variations on selection and copying as a means to produce text, these texts can be seen as descendants of N+7. However, Goldsmith does not manipulate his source texts, he simply re-frames or re-situates them, an act very much in the Duchampian line of Oulipian practice.

Goldsmith terms his acts of copying-writing acts of ‘uncreativitity’- a response in part to the sheer volume of creative work being constantly produced. This naturally resonates with our earlier discuss of copyists, Bartlebys, refusals; of potential writing as also always potential non-writing. Such a reading is appropriate to the work and even asked for. However, it is not a total reading, as Goldsmith’s ‘uncreative’ projects still possess interest as texts, even if, as noted earlier, they are not always constructed in such a way as to invite a thorough reading-through in the manner of a conventional work.

Take ‘The Weather’. By all rights, a simple transcription of weather reports ought to be a dull, unenjoyable, and uninformative read. However, as the literary theorist and critic Marjorie Perloff argues in her essay “Moving Inspiration” On Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘The Weather’, the text is neither so simple nor so boring as it seems at face value. For one thing, the book is structured in 4 parts, each section conforming to a season, in such a way as to produce a “classical narrative” arc.(Moving Inspritation) Another important choice that Goldsmith makes is to copy the weather reports at his whim rather than keep to a strict schedule of transcription. This choice, in combination with his decision not to date the entries, serves to abstract the text and keep it from reading as purely historical record. Perloff notes an almost science fiction-like quality in the decontextualized, strangely personal, stammering and semi-scientific reports. That is to say, as Goldsmith has framed them, these transcriptions possess a genuinely literary quality.

Perloff makes her point about the evocative value of the text by citing a “passage [that] nicely exemplifies the powers of “mere” transcription, mere copying, to produce new meanings. From the perspective of the weather forecaster, Iraq is experiencing some “good good weather”-good visibility, no doubt, for bombing those targeted sites, and not too much wind. The risk of “blowing sand” is slight. After the reference to “a little rain in Baghdad,” the “we” shifts back to the New York area, as if the Baghdad rain or wind were merely a brief diversion from everyday life in the Tri-State area where it’s a nice average day with temperature in the forties and a chance of rain.” (Marjorie Perloff, from “Moving Inspiration”: On Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘The Weather’)

As the above passage indicates, ‘The Weather’, though sourced from New York, is invaded by the narrative thread of invasion. By a purely fortuitous chance, Goldsmith’s ‘Weather’-copying period coincided with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. As were weather-bulletin listeners during that year, ‘The Weather”s readers are given a weirdly sterile and weather-centric account of the war. This intrusion of a war narrative adds a compelling and powerful layer to the text. Perloff utilizes a staple of Oulipian theory, the clinamen, to explain how ‘The Weather’ draws much of its force from the instrusion of the Iraq War narrative. She write that, “[i]n the wake of such “consumer minimalism,” as Goldsmith calls the mode of these one-minute weather reports, those sound bytes that “take our most complex, life-sustaining environment, and simplify it in a way that either aids or abets your commute” (email 14 July), the poet need provide no moralizing on the horrors of war; the actual discourse of the day says it all. The Baghdad thread is thus the clinamen that gives the “classical narrative” of The Weather its piquancy.” (Moving Inspiration)

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‘The Weather’ is available online HERE.


5 Responses to “Kenneth Goldsmith (Thesis Draft Excerpt)”


  1. 1 johuat
    June 2, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    What’s N+7?

  2. 2 Luckycloud
    June 2, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    It’s a game where you look up a word and then move down 7 places in the dictionary and replace the word with that one.

    I could hav explained that better, but I think you get the point.

  3. 3 butttub
    June 3, 2009 at 5:33 am

    The one thing to add to the N+7 explanation is that you take a noun and replace it with the 7th noun that follows, not just the 7th word. It’s important that the parts of speech remain consistent.

  4. 4 Luckycloud
    June 3, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Lesson: I should not try to explain Oulipo games when I am horrendously hung over.

  5. June 3, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    benben et all,

    so, the Goldsmith issue, of which I want to say, more, is part and parcel of a larger conflict going on within language communities vying over flagbearership of the avant-garde (much like a power/identity crisis within Leftist political parties)–

    Notes on Conceptualism, that book we talked about over the phone, is causing a stir. Interesting review, here:

    http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/

    June 3 entry.

    In advance of my position, I’d say that Silliman’s final paragraphs come closest to my own at point, in that Place & Fitterman seem to have a referential logic to art-names (the disgusting reliance on a fraud like Kosuth) that violates the primary supposition of the work they want to defend: the presentation of language being in culture subject to the same laws of objecthood as a commodity–the opposite of say Robert Duncan’s “An Owl is an Only Bird of Poetry”–or Derrida’s vision in the final stages of Grammotology, that within writing is reified the history of the development of social forms: including the capitalist one.

    This is confused. Read the post above, read the book, too. This is important stuff, with Goldsmith. Good work ben


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