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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith is an itch I can’t scratch. That’s probably exactly what he wants to be, too. So I think I’ll try to figure out why he itches me and what about his work I need to unpack to scratch. I don’t remember where I encountered him first, whether it was UBUweb, PennSound, the Poetry Foundation’s blog, or heaven knows where else, but he’s an artist I haven’t been able to shake.

The issue, see, is that Goldsmith really does for language, for speaking, and for writing the exact same thing that Cage did with the audience in 4’33’, Eno did with a broken leg and a too-quiet record player, and Warhol did with Marilyn; and this is a very conscious effort for him. He’s reiterating what Duchamp did with the infamous urinal, Magritte did with “The Treachery of Images,” etc. The examples are countless. What I find conflicting about this is that Goldsmith isn’t really catching us up to what’s happening now. Thus, it annoys me that Goldsmith is considered so profoundly avant-garde, and not in the sense of the “anyone can do it” dilemma. Because yes, anybody can transcribe all the text of one day’s New York Times. Authenticity is not the issue, a tenet Goldsmith so conveniently founds his ideas on. He’s being blatantly unoriginal, not only in the fact that his works are direct requisitions of other texts, but that his ideas are nothing more than the past century’s theories of visual and musical art applied to text.

On the other hand, I think Goldsmith’s work is fascinating and necessary. Someone had to do it with text and language if for no other reason than to point out that it could be done; that, especially in these times, text and language are as malleable, fluid, and capable of being transported (“reframed” as he calls it) as images are. The problem, though, is one he’s all too aware of. In the documentary Sucking on Words, Goldsmith says that even he falls asleep proof-reading his works (my question, why proof-read?). It’s not necessary to actually read the works, only to understand the “wrapper,” the driving idea, the concept. The reason no one had done this with text before is everybody knew it would be boring as all get out; Goldsmith just had the audacity to do it anyway.

One of the most poignant moments of the documentary comes near the end, as Barbara Cole is speaking about students’ and friends’ receptions of Goldsmith’s work. She says that even personal friends of “Kenny,” during private conversations she has had with them, often hint at, if not state explicitly, that his work creates a fear of being “not in on the joke.” I find this confession to be incredibly telling, because, if anything, his work screams to me that it is a joke. And I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s mind candy. It has no nutritional value (which Goldsmith readily professes).

Just as you can laugh uproariously at a joke that is only funny because it calls on outmoded stereotypes, you can find Day interesting because no one in their right mind should find that interesting. Some friends and I, after one member of the group told a tasteless joke, started to discuss why it’s okay to tell tasteless jokes. The consensus seemed to be that if everybody knows it’s tasteless, then it’s harmless, absurd, and telling them only points out that absurdity. Black jokes are funny because we know they’re incredibly inaccurate. In a way, this is the conflict of interest in Goldsmith’s works. They’re jokes that are meant to be taken seriously, because they call up absurd constructs (that one should even consider reading the entirety of the paper from front to back) without ever forcing one to confront or believe in them (you still don’t read the paper front to back, because you’re not even expected to read the whole book).

Goldsmith realizes that he can’t get offended about not having a readership, so he accepts a “thinkership.” But even in that, the fact that he is using language and text to portray something, points to the idea that the text is useless, he’s doing it for the sole purpose of it being done, because reading it doesn’t matter. In this sense, Goldsmith is the perfect example of everything that is right and wrong with post-modernism. He decries the “make it new” idea, when this is really the last vestige of making it new, albeit in a very odd way, because the “it” that is being made new is the old he is aping. Which is why, after seeing what it did for music and the visual arts (and everything else in popular culture), no one bothered to do it with text, until good ol’ Kenneth decided to fill the gap. His work is uncreative with a vengeance; re-places the “vintage” as the “avant-gard” (the urinal from a thrift shop in the museum and the entirety of a day’s paper in book form); and borrows not only its texts but its concepts and interpretation from already accepted forms of media. And he gets away with it because he is simultaneously making what is new (his speech, traffic reports) into something old by placing the new and momentary in an old form, both theoretical and physical.

And that is why it is both necessary and dreadful. That’s why it iches. In a way, this needed to be done. It had to be done with text. Goldsmith is fulfilling a historical imperative. This was more acceptable with image or sound, because the two are still very capable of having emotional impact without relying on a meaning. Text cannot not have meaning, the letter a always refers to the letter a, whether it’s in “cat” or “fpraqrm,” so when we can’t find it or there is none , it’s bothersome, annoying. But we had to be shown that text is, can be, indeed, just that meaningless. Because the meaning doesn’t rest in the text itself; it rests in the concept, the thinking of the “thinkership,” not the reading of the readership. But it’s just the reiteration of a concept we’re already familiar with in a setting which we thought was sacred. Instead of the sound of the audience in the musical experience or an orchestra from household items, we have one man’s every uttered word and the entire text of one day’s paper. It is the final defamation of the last vestige of the sacred: the letter, the word, the reader-writer relationship, the act of writing, and the act of reading. This is where Goldsmith’s concepts break new ground, because, due in large part to the digital revolution, text is now the primary means of communication. Goldsmith ironically manhandles this effluence of text because we have an abundance to manhandle now. It is something that could only happen convincingly in the digital age and the age of mass production.

In a way, I find Goldsmith fascinating. His work is uniquely, momentarily interesting, and I think his saving grace is that is really all he asks for. There is no expectation to read or buy his books, so much so that they are all available online. All he wants is a moment of contemplation, and possibly a moment or two of reading. There’s no guilt (“I’ve been meaning to read that Proust box set I just got, but I’m waiting for the right time”) or expectation. On the other hand, part of me wants to say, “Kenneth, um, seriously, yeah, we get it. OK? OK. Couldya just, uh, move along?”

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Filed under: Goldsmith, Poetry, Tangents, Writing, , , ,

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