Kenneth Goldsmith and the Cult of Pretense & Boredom

Five years ago I was working on a novel called Fever Dreams of the Republic. Part of the conception for the novel was to update some of the techniques Burroughs had used to create novels like Naked Lunch and Nova Express for the digital age. Toward that end, I wrote a computer program in the Python scripting language that took as it's input a text file and produced as it's out put another textfile which was the result of feeding the words from the input file into the Google search engine and then stringing together the results from the abstracted webpages Google offered up. Dutifully I sat there feeding bits of my prose into the program then pasting it back into various places in the text where I deemed such nonsense belonged. Sometimes the results were interesting. Strings of words would pop up that seemed to comment on eachother in interesting ways, and I was excited that what I was doing was producing such interesting results. Until I tried to read through it, at which point I realized what Andre Breton had realized in the 1920's when he gave up automatic writing. That is, I realized that doing this sort of thing, generating text through aleatoric means and then presenting the really fucking boring results of it to the world as your work, was complete bullshit.

It's a lesson that Kenneth Goldsmith—who for all his flaws as a poet (some of which i will be outlining in this article) we are never-the-less indebted to for and his work at PennSOUND— and his many admirers have yet to learn. Goldsmith freely admits, indeed, he brags about the fact that he's the most boring writer who has ever lived. He claims that he puts himself to sleep while proofreading his books. Why would anyone care about such a writer? My cynical side suspects it's yet another development of the bourgeois elitism perpetually expounded by Turner prize winners like Simon Starling, who seem to think that almost one hundred years after our forefathers started asking "What is art" in the various modernisms of the early 20th century, it's still enough to just ask the question. It is absolutely not. We have reached a point in history when it is no longer enough just to ask questions, but at this point in time, art will only have value, will only be interesting if answers, or their impossibility, are suggested and gestured at. In this, for poetry, the most obvious model is the poetic reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, whereby the reader takes it not as philosophy but an epic poem exploring the inner reaches of the mind.

I'm thinking about this now because I've just read Ron Silliman's essay on Goldsmith. In it, Silliman accuses Goldsmith of cultivating a cult of personality around himself. I disagree. What he's doing is tapping into the Emperorer's New Clothes element of fringe art and using it to create a Cult of Pretense and Boredom. What's weirdest about it, though, is how open he is about what he's trying to do, at least as far as the boredom goes.

It occurred to me that Goldsmith's project is exactly the opposite of what we're trying to do with Wet Asphalt. Central to my conception of art, the idea of good work, is that it must be interesting. The whole purpose of Wet Asphalt was our belief that interesting work exists and can be brought to the public. I often disagree with Ron Silliman's assessments of various poets on precisely these grounds. Rae Armentrout, a personal friend of Silliman's and one of the better known Language poets, is a writer I find mindbendingly dull. Not because the issues she tries to raise in her work are not important and not worth raising. They are interesting in and of themselves, but the way in which she raises them are so skullcrushingly dull that it's almost impossible for me to read her. I feel much the same way about a lot of the Language Poets, and it is here that I think the true differentiation between concept and execution, and the fact that execution has been given a great deal of weight in traditional systems of poetics, flowers. Lyn Hejinian and Ron Silliman are also language poets, and language poets whose work, particularly Silliman's, I find very interesting and engaging as poetry. That's something I can't say about most of their fellows. It is here that the crucial judgment has to take place, do the issues and theoretical ideas informing the piece matter, or does the piece itself? The question, posed in this way, shines light on the error of the language poets, and even more so post language poets like Kenny Goldsmith and Brian Kim Stefans in their championing of uncreative writing. The error is the one that conceptual artists make: they assume that the ideas behind a work matter more than the work itself, hence abyssmal artistic failures like "Shed-Boat-Shed" and Kenny Goldsmith recording every movement he makes over the course of an entire day.

The twentieth century began with a question about what art is. Artists like Duchamp, Tzara, Artaud, Beckett and Breton challenged conventional notions and forced audiences to examine a lot of pre-conceived notions about beauty and the value of the aesthetic. That's done now. It's time to move on. That now, in the early 21st century, people like Kenneth Goldsmith have come to the point where they have completely inverted prior valuations, to the point where boredom is what is aspired to, well, I find the tautological truth that what they're doing is completely uninteresting rather revealing.

This is not to say that interesting things can't be done with aleatory, chance composition, or mechanical writing. But you have to be careful with such tools, just as a welder has to be careful with his blowtorch. Merely employing them alone is not enough, they have to be employed in the right way, with skill and precision, as with Jackson Mac Low's chance compositions in Bloomsday, to cite one of my favorite examples. And at the same time, it's good that people like Stefans are experimenting with new media for poetry. The recently posted example in wet asphalt can show that such "FlashPo" compositions can be very interesting. But while there are great problems present in the use of Flash in particular as a tool, randomness itself is even more problematic and requires a steady hand to employ it. Not, I should like to say, the uncreative boring sledgehammer that is Kenneth Goldsmith.


Interest and Entertainment

One has to chuckle quietly at the irony of Silliman accusing anyone of cultivating a cult of personality around themselves...

But what I really wanted to note here is that there must be something in the air at Wet Asphalt. Here you talk about that fundamental-- but often overlooked-- quality of *interest* in a work. Earlier in the blog (I'm too lazy to go back on this slow connection) was an article about the value of *entertainment* and the false dichotomy of entertainment and literary fiction.

I was going to comment there that entertainment is just one manifestation of a spectrum of other possibilities that are generally lumped together... to the detriment of everyone. Interest is another characteristic in that spectrum.

Uncreative writing is right. I see it as uncommunicative poetry. It's not only that-- for these poets-- the ideas are more important than the poems, but communication with the reader is denied (at least implicitly, often explicitly). It's a cult of the new which, like many cults, subverts a value (doing something different) that isn't necessarily bad on its own, and might even be a real positive...

Entertainment is sort of a

Entertainment is sort of a nebulous term, which I think contributes to the problems in discussing it. "Interest" or "interestingness" could be argued to be an aspect of entertainment, and the equating of "entertainment" with "lowest-common-denominator-edge-of-your-seat-at-the-sacrifice-of-all-else " kind of thing is bad for everybody.


I'm sympathetic with the idea of interest being an aspect of entertainment, but it's not reflexive... all things entertaining must be interesting, but not all things of interest are entertaining. Not even a little bit. I'm not sure of the first, but I'm sure of the second.

I agree about the danger about casting entertainment as a characeristic of "low" art (as I have heard it put).

What is art? What is the right question?

It is well that we question our purpose. In the search for meaningful insight we may come to a result that has the ring of truth, yet falls short.

Experiment is alright too, but what are the results? THIS GETS ME TO ASK a key question from the angle of a poet. For kicks I will sit with a friend in a neighborhood Borders cafe and watch what people entertain themselves with. Magazines, those top New York Times best selling giants of the fiction world. My friend, also a writer, of fiction, bitches about the state of things. He experiments in form, writes highly charged short stories which go unpublished for the most. He tells me what sells at Borders, at least.

Entertainment dollar, as crude as it seems, is the correct term to describe how money is filtered into Dan Brown's account, rather than your pocket or mine. Biggest nonseller is poetry. No shocker there. Then short stories. There is no real market for short stories on the level of best selling authors. They don't sell. That of course has nothing to do with their value as art. I was advised by a literary agent to start writing fiction, and that it should be novels. She also said that mystery, true crime, rommance, and western are all better routes to go.

Great! I write poems. I am not, nor have I ever thought of fiction as a choice for me. So where does that put me? Where I choose to be. I write what I like, well, maybe a small number of like minded want to be poets will read and enjoy.

Here is an interesting fact. In Greece, in the city state of Athens, citizens too poor to pay to get in to see theatre were given a stipend to attend. It was part of being a good member of society. Homer's rants on Odysseus were hot stuff, but there were a lot who may have been bored by them (discounting myself of course).

So I am here ranting. Yawn! (I do not blame you if you stop reading at this point). It is only my opinion, but here it is. Today's intelligent, and most gifted writers, are completely to blame for their circumstances. The problem is not out there. It starts and ends here. Anyone still there? O.K., just checking. When, for example, my prose minded brothers and sisters, poets stopped writing strictly in verse, when we tossed the rules for that game of tennis, as Frost eluded to when discribing free verse, we abandoned the one structure that aided us in captivating the larger public imagination, as I can see. I get this notion from listening to a friend at work describing (she is in her 70's) having to learn long passages of verse in school, by heart as she puts it. She recited for me, a bit of Edna St. Vincent Millay to me and smiled sweetly. I asked how old she was when she learned this and she said about age 12! I can't remember telephone numbers often!

The poor, the masses with their highschool educations and blue collar jobs know that there was once a thing poetry, and that it ryhmed. Ask someone on the street, well, try and make eye contact first, otherwise you may frighten them, and ask them what a poem is.

As we smile smugly and pity them? They are fools? They are yokels? Hmmm....David, David, David! She learned verse when she was a kid and still remembers it by heart. It is a symbol of her education, her spirit, her knowledge of herself and belief in poetry and art and all things that a culture values as important. I pitty her? Bullshit. She teases me when misspell a word in a phone message or can't recall the name of a newspaper article. She isn't a mean person though. She simple has the values of her generation. I don't even know what mine are.

Where is all this getting to? O.K., here is the point. All of the literary rags and magazines out there are one source, and a good source for printing your babies, for sharing them with an old professor or friend you had in workshop, but that is the market, and it is a SMALL ONE my brothers and sisters.

Blasting one another, a popular game with my friend working at the Borders, is no good either. T.S. Eliot made choices. E.E. Cummings, a favorite of mine wrote off the scale form. Ashbery, love his work. He is my favorite modern poet. Mary Oliver, whom I adore is all but unknown to a crowd of one in this post post M.T.V. generation. Hell, they were born in the 1990s! But who memorizes the stuff? No one. Why? Because they don't know about it. Should they care? Who knows. Do I care,a little I guess. If I write another poem and bitch about it will they care? No. What is art? What is it value? Are these the right questions?

Art has never been especially main stream. When it does it turns into a Dan Brown block buster about the blood of Christ. And we feel bad about it? Da Vinci painted for the wealthy. And as for writing, well that was for a small percentage of the population. Books were major investments. They are even today, very expensive. Thats why book stores put in cafes with those lovely chairs. It helps to keep people around and boost sales. It has never been easy and it never will be. We have a lot competing with us. My best friend, who now lives in St. Louis has a very large DVD collection (close to a thousand) and more CDS than he can ever listen to (some of which he hasn't, that are still unwrapped on a shelf in his den). He is a very smart guy and has a B.A. and a good job. However, he owns maybe 20 books total.

For the record, my favorite poet is Yeats. The other day I was talking to this girl at an El stop. We got on to what we liked. I told her I had just bought a new copy of an old favorite, Philip Larkin. "Who?" she asked. And there you have it.