"Awareness is critique"
Six years ago, Kenneth Goldsmith's Uncreative Writing was published. A blue-print for his practice of conceptual literature, the book adopts techniques that are traditionally outside the scope of fiction and nonfiction alike: word processing, databasing, identity ciphering, and intensive programming etc. While in Berlin to launch the German edition of Uncreative Writing at Volkbühne, Kenneth Goldsmith sat down with Kathrin Jira for an extensive conversation on writing in the internet age, double standards in literature, and the rigors of uncreativity.
Kathrin Jira: Your book Uncreative Writing was originally published in 2011. In the introduction you wrote that you hope that with technology changing the rules in every aspect of our lives, literature too will be turned into something new, contemporary and – finally – relevant. Do you think now, six years later, there is more of that stuff out there?
Kenneth Goldsmith: I don’t think so, no. In spite of all my theorizing and enthusiasm, I feel that literature is still sort of stuck where it was back when I was writing this. And I began thinking about these things almost a decade ago. There is nothing in this book that I feel I was wrong about. Nothing has proven me wrong. And that’s a weird thing when you are writing about technology, because technology changes so much. So I stand by it. I don’t think these ideas have been adapted at all, in spite of the fact that we are more immersed in technology and media than we were before. It’s only increased and I said it’s not going away. And I find there is just great denial and ignorance of the way that people are interacting with literature and technology.
What do the terms new and contemporary mean to you?
It’s very simple. I feel artists are obliged to articulate what it is like to live in the moment in which they are living and there are many ways to do that. Obviously, one could talk about the political situation, I tend to wanting to talk about the technological situation and then branch out into literature and politics from there. New and contemporary, those are my favorite things.
What other ways – technology aside – are there to use language in a more contemporary way?
There are many ways to use language in a contemporary way. I think people can write novels that are new, tell new stories with memoirs. I don’t deny that that is possible. But I’m interested in the intersection of literature and technology. And that’s changing and evolving and really exciting. It’s a challenge. I’m interested in writers being challenged by technology as well.
Memoirs, in fact, are flourishing. I’m thinking of the Knausgård phenomenon. His main source of writing are his personal experiences. You, on the other hand, mistrust the notions of memory and originality.
I mean, when so much memory is being outsourced, why bother. Why even restrict it to our own memory. It’s a collective memory there that’s available to tap into and create things out of. My Facebook feed alone is full not only of my own memories but everybody else’s on my Facebook page and it’s really rich. There is a lot of language there, a lot of thought and a lot of feeling.
In some of your recent books you are, however, looking back yourself – take Capital or Seven American Deaths and Disasters…
Those were all based on things from the past. And then my new book Wasting time on the Internet is again based on the technological present. Those two books were also works of literature, these are books of critique and essays. They are related and they are also different. It’s just all material, really, present, past and future. I just look at language as material.
I was trained as a sculptor, I worked many years in sculpture and then I began doing these sculptures that were sculptures of books. And they needed words on them. You know, books need words. So I began to put words on the books in a visual way. To me, the words that I was putting on were always material. They were being cut out and they were being applied or they were being painted. I began to get interested in things like concrete poetry and uses of language that are not necessarily transparent but are actually concrete and opaque in the way that words look and the way that words sound and the way that words feel. And quantity of words and quantity of language. I began to make a poetic practice out of these material properties. Then, once I hit the web, there was more language than I could ever eat, all you can eat, it became crazy and I realized that the materiality of language on the web was the thing that was going to be driving this preoccupation with materiality.
You are known for being an enthusiast and optimist when it comes to the web and digitalization in general. You said, for instance, that surfing the web can be seen as a way of self-expression, self-exploration. But isn’t the internet configured in a way that we just move along the lines that have sort of been laid there for us?
The lines that have been laid is the apparatus and the architecture upon which we are writing which is important to understand. It’s all prescribed in a way. The whole format of it is a readymade, a Duchampian readymade, really.
But there is someone behind all that…
Yes, it’s teams of people. Those are the biggest corporations in the world. And I think, this is the awareness that we need to understand as writers that we are writing on giant corporate platforms. We think we are expressing ourselves freely and sort of we are and sort of we are not. We bought into this and this is where most of our writing is taking place and you can’t say it’s not writing. It really is writing. It’s a lot of writing. My Facebook feed is nothing but language. And so I’m thinking, wow, that’s new. Even ten years ago that was not the case.
Right, and you weren’t even talking about social media back then.
That’s correct, I had to add a chapter at the end of the book. Ten years ago, it was more about blogging and things like that. But now it has only increased more. The channels have narrowed. But blogging was also owned by Google, the blogger platform was run by Google, so we were writing already on a corporate platform. Before that we were writing on Microsoft Word, which before this was the biggest corporation and before that we were writing on IBM typewriters. When haven’t we been influenced? But for some reason it becomes invisible. So I’m thinking, let’s make this visible and admit that. It is prescribed, it really is, entirely by the apparatus. And I’m in favor of exploiting that and critiquing that and bring that out.
Critiquing in what form?
The critique is simply awareness. There was a beautiful essay by a digital theorist, early on, named Matthew Fuller, with the title It looks like you're writing a letter: Microsoft Word (2000). But you are not typing a letter. You are doing so much more than typing a letter. You are making replicas and copies and ghost copies, then you hook that up to a network, it gets more replicated, it gets more distributed and with the intersectionality with social media, it gets even more so. We are using technology very well, but we are theorizing it very poorly, it’s very under-theorized. As regular users and also as artists we are under-theorizing it. If you can begin to bring out the structuralism of these systems, I believe it can form the basis of a critique. Awareness is critique. Self-consciousness is critique.
I’m a formalist. I have always found structure to be and formalism to imply critique. Deconstruction and structuralism always was able to, through a structural analysis, shred systems and take them apart and look at them. Take Roland Barthes and S/Z: it’s just a deconstruction of a Balzac’ story Sarransine. And suddenly within that, there are semiotic codes and you are like: Man, I never realized the depths and the layers that were being expressed simply by the story until Barthes began to take it apart structurally. I think that’s not so much different than the kind of thing that I’m interested in doing.
Uncreative Writing! Could you talk about some of the methods this involves? For instance, in your latest book, Capital, a rewriting of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project set in New York City in the 20th century.
Capital is 1000-page book that took me ten years to write. The idea was to use Benjamin’s identical methodology in order to write a poetic history of New York City in the 20th century, just as Benjamin did with Paris in the 19th. All my work is very systematic. I get an idea, I make a program and then I just do it. Capital was using all my methods. I was just copying things. It was marvelous. I was sitting in libraries copying things out of books. It was heaven. It was uncreative and it was long and it was intense but it was the same method. I guess I could have done it on the web, cut and paste it, also. It’s different temporalities, different matrixes. Sometimes it’s really slow, sometimes it’s really fast. Usually, it’s really slow. This is all about unoriginality.
Is it hard to cut and paste a good piece of writing?
It’s really hard. There’s a million questions that you need to ask, as many as you need to ask with a conventional piece of writing. It’s just different questions. It’s not easy and not everybody is good at it.
You value selection over creation. Could you share some of the questions you ask yourself in the process of writing?
Well, for example, what are you cutting and pasting? You’ve got the whole internet and you’ve got this tool and how are you going to construct that? And why are you going to do it? How will these things go together and will you write into it a little bit? How do you keep tenses going? Will you change tenses because you are cutting and pasting from everywhere? How do you make it seamless or do you maybe you want the jaggedness of it? Not all uncreative writing is good. Most of it is very bad.
Some people make better decisions than others.
There’s a phrase that I talk about in the book: unoriginal genius. Where genius is no longer as we conceived it before but the genius would be in the remixing of pre-existing pieces of language into something new and original even though it’s all pre-existing. You have to think of it like a DJ. Nobody, first of all, will say that a DJ is not a musician. The best DJ is a great musician, we all give them that and there is some DJs that are really good and there is some DJs that are terrible. The really good ones are judged by the samples that they use and the way that they put them together in a new and original way. Even though they are working with pre-cut and paste materials. And therefore they are making great art and nobody will deny that. So why can’t we think of some kind of literary equivalent of the DJ?
Why can’t we?
There is a weird thing about literature. I think there’s a double-standard that’s applied. I’m a writer and I write books. I’m a conceptual writer. Somehow in writing people have a hard time understanding that it is the same thing. It’s a curious point about literature.
I think people are very precious with language because language is difficult. We have trouble understanding each other even though we speak languages. Right now, you are speaking to me in a second language and we are trying to bridge that and you are doing it beautifully. I’m not even making an effort, and we are sort of understanding each other, but it’s difficult. Why would you want to make that more difficult? That’s why I think people are afraid to mess with language: because it’s the basis of everything. Whereas visual art, you know, it’s just a picture. It doesn’t really change anything. I look at the picture, then I walk away. With language we express everything, business, love, education, philosophy, law, justice, politics, all through language. It’s very fragile and I think people are very frightened to mess with that, to make it more difficult.
Speaking of difficult. Conceptual writing isn’t always easy to read…
Often with these types of literature that I do, the ideas are much more interesting then the product. My books are terrible to read. All those books that I mentioned. But they are really fun to talk about and they are really fun to think about and they are really cool to have as objects to look into. I don’t enjoy reading them but they have a different type of function. They are more philosophical or conceptual. We have a great conversation about them and they are social in that way. So it functions but it functions very differently, inversely.
You are teaching a class called Uncreative Writing at The University of Pennsylvania. Are you preparing your students for the fact that they might not sell a lot of copies of their work?
In the United States no poetry is saleable. Every poet has a job in the US. There is no government support for the poet. But that’s what makes poetry free and why poetry is obliged to take as many risks as it can possibly take. No need to play it safe with poetry. Which is why I’m disappointed that poetry is not more experimental. I’m trying to think, why are people trying to be conventional with poetry, there is no reason not to be innovative with it. There is nothing to loose, no market, nobody to please. It’s very marginal. And I love that about it. That’s why it should be as crazy as it can be.
KENNETH GOLDSMITH is the author of ten books of poetry and founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb. He teaches writing at The University of Pennsylvania and lives in New York.
KATHRIN JIRA is a writer and co-editor of Edit magazine. She lives in Leipzig.
The German translation of Uncreative Writing was published at Matthes & Seitz.