A Q & A with Kenneth Goldsmith
Jan Baetens: You are best in known in Europe as the lead theoretician and practitioner of “uncreative writing”, or as the French translation of your book by François Bon goes: Écriture sans écriture (éd. Jean Boîte, 2018), that is a way of writing as editing, to put it very crudely, which has a strong link with the Modern tradition of Unoriginal Genius, as studied by Marjorie in her eponymous book (Chicago UP, 2011). But your take on this type of writing seems to have a strong multimedia and transmedial dimension. Do you agree with that view, and if so (or not), how would you define your relationship between writing and other types of media work (including your performances, your radio work)? What you are doing is definitely totally different from the franchised transmedia storytelling as coined by Henry Jenkins.
Kenneth Goldsmith: I was trained as a visual artist and in the visual arts, transmedia is the norm. Most artists get known for one thing but in reality do many things. I’m thinking of someone like Mike Kelley, who did everything from sculptures to music to performances to films to radio to books and beyond, all of which bear his unique vision. And if you asked Kelley to choose which one was his “real” art, he would probably have said that they all are; while the market might define an artist’s production, most artistic production is intuitive and willfully eclectic.
In terms of my own work, everything is part of the same pie: my writing, my radio work, UbuWeb, and my teaching are all manifestations of the same exploration—and they all have informed the other. For instance, two of my books, Wasting Time on the Internet and Uncreative Writing evolved out of my teaching those courses. My next book, Duchamp is My Lawyer is a history of UbuWeb, which I teach from, and from which much of the content on the site was derived from my radio days. So it’s all intertwined.
JB: In the seminal international anthology on “conceptual poetry”, what we in Europe also call “constrained writing poetry”, you composed with Craig Dworkin, Against Expression (Northwestern UP, 2011), the introduction claims a strong parallelism between the invention of photography, which dramatically reshaped painting, and the digital revolution, which has no less dramatic an impact on traditional writing. The comparison is of course very powerful, but isn’t it a little biased in the sense that the impact of photography on painting is the impact of a new medium on an old one, whereas the impact of electronic writing on writing remains within the same medium? Could you expand a little on how you see this fundamental comparison today?
KG: While I understand what you are trying to get at, I must push back and claim that not all writing is the same. Writing in a digital way is a completely new way of writing, mostly because of the way the work is distributed and “liquefied.” Once upon a time, writing was imprisoned on the page. If you wanted to get it off that page, you would, for example, xerox that page, re-imprisoning it on a page. When writing is digital, it is fluid and can assume any form you pour it into: now it’s a text file, now it’s an audio file, now it’s an image file, now it’s a video file, and so forth. And the way it moves about—refracted and reflected—is completely unprecedented so much so that I’d say it’s every bit a new medium, even though it appears to be the same 26 letters in the alphabet. This is why it’s important not to get stuck on traditional notions of content in digital writing; here, context is the new content. It’s about so much more than what you’re actually writing—it’s all about apparatus.
JB: You are of course a US writer, but a very “global” one, whose work is read and commented worldwide, even before its translation in “local” languages. Is that dimension (of “globalism”) present when you write and compose? And how do you address it? Do you have a global audience in mind or instead a deeply American one? Your themes are often extremely American (and it is impossible to ignore that you are in the first place a world citizen of New York), but apparently that does not seem to bother foreign audiences.
KG: My reception globally is much better than my reception in America, where people have little interest in innovation and abstraction in regards to literature and language. There’s a feeling somehow that writing should be directly useful and efficacious—politically, socially, marketwise—otherwise it’s seen as self-indulgent, elitist, and wasteful—a particularly American / Protestant / puritan idea. As I’ve written elsewhere, “Poetry's power is its powerlessness, which is the power to imagine the unimaginable. Poetry's inability to change anything is its ability, it's disability its acuity. Poetry's inversion of logic is its logic, its stasis its movement, its impoverishment its wealth. The only thing realizable about poetry is its unrealizability which, freed of pragmatics, makes it completely realizable.” This is verboten in America.
Several decades ago, I understood that if you were to be well-known, it would have a lot to do with your presence on the internet. In the nascent years of the web, presence in places like the Electronic Poetry Center or on UbuWeb in some way determined specific canons. Today, when everyone is on the internet, attention is much harder to get and canons are much harder to build. Today, careers are horizontal rather than vertical the way they were when I was coming up.
While I am a New Yorker, I didn’t come to New York to be a local poet. At a certain point, New York seemed like the only stage, a jumping off point for global access. And in some ways, that was correct; during the 70s or 80s, it felt like all culture emanated from New York. In hindsight, that was incorrect—we later learned about vibrant cultural scenes in places like São Paolo or Köln—but there was a sort of New York myopia which made one feel like world fame — or the illusion thereof — was within one’s grasp. Happily, these myths have been exploded. With the web, New York is another point on the map, which is sometimes bypassed entirely. Today for instance, my students, skip New York, opting instead for places like Detroit, Berlin, Lisbon, Los Angeles, or Mexico City, which are affordable and lively in ways that New York is no longer.
JB: An important dimension of global writing has of course to do with the use of English as the modern koine. But since things change (think for instance of the increasing presence of Spanish in the US and the emerging competition between English and other world languages), how do you see the influence of these changes on your work? You have strong opinions on translation (cf. Against Translation, éd. Jean Boîte, 2016), but how do you integrate these ideas in your creative work –provided of course it makes sense (and I’m not sure it does) to maintain a strong distinction between theory and practice?
KG: I often ponder the fact that if I didn’t write in English, my ideas wouldn’t be nearly as well-known as they are today. Writing in English gives me a great advantage. I recall once attending a Nordic poetry conference, where the Swedes couldn’t understand the Icelanders, the Danish couldn’t understand the Norwegians, and nobody could understand the Finns. So they all read their works, translated into English. I was able to read my work in my language and have everyone understand it, a tremendous plus.
JB: One of the most decisive features of your “uncreative writing” practice is the importance of selection, a set of choices to make that have both qualitative and quantitative aspects. On the one hand: are the nature and content of the material you select “relevant”, whatever the notion of relevance may involve? On the other hand: how large is that material? I am very curious to know how you make the quantitative decisions of the process: what is the ideal size of a text (or part of a text)? And how do you play with this implicit or explicit model? And a very practical question in this regard: If someone would ask me to make an anthology of Kenneth Goldsmith’s writings, what would you recommend me to do (for you will certainly not say: “anything goes”)?
KG: From the very beginning, I wanted to create works that would be uncategorizable, works that would not be mistaken for either fiction or poetry. So my metric of size was the reference book. Looking over a number of reference books, I found that the one thing that any reference book worth its salt had was that it was at least 600 pages. So, I decided for my first book, No. 111, that I would stop the book when it hit 600 pages. Other books had a natural ending. Day ended when the entire newspaper was typed, at around 900 pages; Soliloquy ended when I stopped speaking for a week, I think it was 500 pages or so. Length in my works are determined by the simple formulas which they arduously follow. I can’t imagine having to “end” a book in a traditional way. I wouldn’t have a clue how to do it.
I did do a collected Goldsmith recently which I ironically called The Complete Works, which is exactly what it sounds like. At the time, in early 2019, it totaled 3,751 pages. Of course since then, I’ve written many more words…
JB: As a writer who is also a teacher, you inevitably learn a lot from your students, who are not only your first audience but also your first collaborators. Could you give some examples of how their experiences, positive or negative, have shaped or reshaped your ways of writing?
KG: My students use the internet expertly but have no tools with which to theorize their use. A large part of my pedagogy is giving them those tools, mostly through critical theory and art history. Once they can see the way that certain modernisms have predicted their behavior on the web, then they become interested in them. As I said earlier, what I get from them is raw information; my classroom is a laboratory for my books—Uncreative Writing and Wasting Time on the Internet were just ideas until I ran classes on them to test my theories.
JB: Next to your creative work, you have also single-handedly built the most extensive and impressive portal site on avant-garde and experimental literature, Ubuweb (http://www.ubu.com/resources/). What is for you the ideal “use” of this site, not just for documentation or archival storage and retrieval but for practice-based research. As it stands, Ubuweb is a very “democratic” tool, which does not impose certain norms or models, but don’t you think it might be interesting to take the user by the hand and to guide her or him to this or that kind of work?
KG: That’s like asking the library to take the user by the hand and guide them. Sure, you can highlight certain interesting artifacts within the library via exhibitions and public outreach, but the beauty of the library is that there is no one way or correct way to use it. Everyone has their own uses for it. The beauty of the library is that it exists, patiently waiting to be used or misused in any manner that one finds necessary. UbuWeb is an accretion, a subjective collection of what I—a mere poet who has no real knowledge of its subject—think is interesting. It’s a very flawed and biased archive but since UbuWeb ignores copyright, it’s become the only one of its kind, thereby becoming by default a sort of institution, a tastemaker, a canon crowner. I’m not so happy with that but again, I don’t determine anything about it; it has a life of its own and this is the life it has taken on. My dream is that somebody actually does UbuWeb correctly, with proper permissions, citations, textual analysis, etc. thereby putting us out of business. I’ve been doing this for a quarter of a century; it’s time something else takes over. But because of copyright, it looks like we’re stuck with Ubu, broken as it may be.
JB: A last and somewhat narcissistic question. We are of course very happy to have you participate in the adventure of PLACE, but what do you think of the platform as it evolving today, along the three parallel lines of annual issues, trimestral special issues focusing on just one work, and actual events that are taking place offline. What would you think a structure like PLACE should be doing?
KG: I’m not really sure I’m the best person to ask. My notion of the web was formed when UbuWeb was born, back in the mid-90s. And although I know the web has changed immensely in that time, I still use it in the ways that I always have, mostly to download and share cultural artifacts, like a library. My scope and use of the web is surprisingly narrow. But I like the idea of focusing on one work only; in a time of too much, such a focus seems refreshing. It reminds me of a great column the art critic Jerry Saltz did for Arts magazine back on the 80s, which focused on only a single artwork, about which each month he’d write 2500 words or so. I had never heard of that before and I still think of it as being a very fresh and useful model. So I think you’re on the right track.
( October 2019 )
7 Le Musée des Erreurs, ou Museum of Mistakes, depuis 2013.