Reflexions on the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, with an emphasis on The Weather (2005)

You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows. (No. 109 2.7.93-12.15.93)

Well, it’s not very nice outside, and it’s not going to get a whole lot, uh, in fact, probably not going to get any better, as we go through the day. (The Weather)

1.

In the end of February this year, a dear American friend of mine took my wife Kirsi and me for a round at Chelsea flee markets (the weather was rather cold at that time in Manhattan). In the midst of marveling at the assorted junk, and of a lot of talking – about many things, including the question whether you should avoid doing the same thing twice (our host’s characteristic respond being: “I don’t have a problem in doing the same thing twice”) – the Manhattan poet and conceptual artist bought a fancy, black-and-white tie. Some ten to twenty minutes later the new owner realized having dropped the tie somewhere. My wife suggested we’d go back to find it, but the addressee refused, with an equally characteristic line: “Who cares. It’s nothing. Just a five dollar tie…”

Which reminds me of a statement by the author of Day (The Figures, 2003) a couple of years back, at the (private) Ubu mailing-list. This was in reply to someone suggesting that Canadian poets dress more fancily compared to the American ones – and it too involves a statement on value:

For my recent book party here in NYC (Day), I was wearing a suit from the Paul Smith men’s spring 2003 collection in a 100% wool navy and plum window-pane pattern. The suit was lined with a teal and beige silk variegated dot pattern, costing $1,395 (plus tax). My shirt, a pink chevron pattern in 100% cotton, was from Hervé Jacques of Paris, originally retailed for about $640 (I got it on sale at Century 21 for $399). My 100% silk Gucci tie in diagonal stripe pattern of pink, raspberry, beige, fuchsia, and chocolate was $175 and my orange men’s cashmere hosiery by Hermes was only $30. Hidden was my 100% cotton men’s briefs by Calvin Klein: $42. And my black crocodile Italian leather Beatle boots by Prada were $429 (sadly no sale here).

2.

Let’s face it: the grist of the work of the originator of, most recently, The Weather (Make Now, 2005), is (I will claim: increasingly) in its obsessive, reckless and ruthless, critique of all conceivable uses of the concept of value in, or in connection to, poetry – or art in general (two terms that, in his use, are almost interchangeable. I may return to some implications of this.). This critique can come in the form of a nihilistic rejection (“It’s nothing”), or as satirical displacements – wrong (or perhaps revealingly right?) uses – of our customary valuing practices, as in the example of clothing above.

I’ve found it useful to review the literary corpus of the editor of Ubu Web, the vast independent resource dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts, against the following ad hoc matrix. By hanging the general question of the value in poetry on two pairs of opposing poles, i.e.: INDIVIDUAL versus COLLECTIVE (as two possible “markets” where the value of art can be determined), and AUTHOR versus RECEIVER (as alternative sources for it[1]), we will get the following basic combinations: #1: author-centered individualism, as exemplified by the classic Romantic notions of genius, like in Keats’s assertion that “I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the Beautiful even if my night’s labours should be burnt every morning and no eye ever shone upon them”; #2: equally author-centered traditionalism of someone like Pound, campaigning to “purify the language of the tribe”, or Eliot negotiating the “tradition” and “individual talent”; #3: the reader-centered individualism of most of what is known as Post-Modernism in poetry and fiction (what could be labeled as “[your poem here]” attitude), and #4: reader-centered traditionalism to be found in classic Socialist Realism and, possibly, in some contemporary communally-oriented identity poetries and poetics as well.

Individual Collective
Author #1 Romanticism #2 High Modernism (“language of tribe”)
Receiver #3 Postmodernism #4 Social commitment, propaganda

On the surface of it, much of the satire inherent in the work of the writer and textual artist under consideration here would seem to be targeted primarily at the above combination #1 – as is only to be expected from someone schooled in the traditions of Dadaists, Situationists, Concrete poets, Fluxus adventurers and Oulipo madmen. But I doubt if this is the whole story. I think we should at least ask ourselves, whether the mechanizing impulse found in works such as No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (The Figures, 1997: a 606 page collection of found phrases and fragments ending with the “R” sound, arranged by sound and syllable count so that the final section consists of D.H. Lawrence’s 7228 syllables long story, “The Rocking Horse Winner” which the esthetically adventurous author characteristically claims not to have read at all), or Fidget (a tape-recorded “documentation” of all the body movements the present inhabitant of a cool loft apartment at West 26th Street, New York made during a single Bloomsday, July 16 of 1997), could also be conceived as a parody of certain established avant-garde practices and mind-sets. Indeed, considering the crucial role concepts like “juxtaposition” and “disjunction” play in almost all avant-garde writing from Francois Rabelais onward (I wouldn’t hesitate to speak about “avant-garde mainstream” here.), isn’t there something a bit blasphemous about the typical modus operandi of the enfant terrible of Manhattan art scene: as if he – like the child in Andersen’s well-known story (humor me with this second reference to dressing) – would want to demonstrate that his seemingly absurd constraints are more likely to produce “fresh” non sequiturs compared to the efforts of many heroic individual writers trying to weave “new textures” or clothe her/his verse in “unexpected trappings” for the advancement of language and art. (I’m reminded here of the 60’s Soviet leader, Mikhail Khrushchev, with his famous remark about “the donkey tail art”. In ways I will have reason to return to, the work of the part-time impersonator of the conservative-minded singer Kenny G may have more in common with the critical heritage of Mr. Khrushchev than we’d like to think.)

Still, it’s interesting to note, in this context, that this “critique of the concept of the author” by the poet forged in the spirit of hip-hop and Joyce seems also to be conditioned by a (twisted) affirmation of a number of values and attitudes traditionally attached to the category #2 in our ad hoc characterization – the author-centered traditionalism. Thus, No. 111 does satirize measure and rhyme by manically expanding them ad infinitum, but at the same time makes good use of them: an attempt to follow the repetitive patterns might be the only reason to read (parts of) the book at all. In Fidget, the basic paradigm seems to be “fiction”, and while its many Joycean parallelisms easily read as a homage to experimental prose, both the conceiver’s own statements about the work, and the critical responses generated by it so far, seem rather to affirm than question the viability and future perspectives of fiction in general. These two works are, if anything, (still) about the “language of the tribe” as a medium for (self-)expression – as witnessed by a later statement by the creator of the most exhaustive and beautiful collage work yet produced in poetry about No. 111: “it tames the wide world of available language and focuses it through the fine lens of one person’s experience” (my emphasis).

It is only with Soliloquy, a textual object recording it’s fabricator’s every utterance over an entire week (while those of his interlocutors get glossed over), that the DJ at the WMFU radio station and music critic seems to free himself from the spell of self-expressive authorship. Due to the book’s simple (but ingenious) formative principle, the “author-effect”, to borrow Foucault’s famous formulation, cannot here be felt at the level of the text at all. In more that one way, the “real”, expressive authors of this book (as text) are the interlocutors, the voices of whom, however, are not heard at all. So who’s talking? At one level, a collective of sorts (or a Wittgensteinian “form of life”, as has been noted). On another, the reader(s) with his/her (their) active supplanting for the missing parts and their near-to-unavoidable guessing at as to whom, on what, with what purposes on mind, etc, the (falsely) apparent speaker is talking in any given instance. We seem to be moving to the above categories #3 and #4, and witnessing a withdrawal of the author – not to polish his fingernails, however, but instead to do something (at least a bit) more laborious: to mechanically record and transcribe, and/or to re-type, copy-and-paste, and OCR, as he then proceeded to do in his next work, Day, which is a re-publication of an entire edition of the New York Times of September 1, 2000, in book form. With this withdrawal (that at the same time completes the shift in terms of constitutive source and markets of the possible value of the work) the receiver of a BFA in Sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1984 arrives to one of his two most scandalous formulas for the task of the writer/artist to day: that of Uncreative Writing (as the source of artistic “value”).

3.

Let’s face it again: no less than (and much the same way as) his satirizing of the notions of individual genius seemed to convert into a parody of alternatives to this notion, this more radical eradication of the author-function by the leading conceptual artist of today, far from simply celebrating the collective, the impersonal, the everyday, and the likes, is at the same time a form of nihilistic rejection of each of these – as exemplified by this other profoundly scandalous recent formulation, presented, alternatively, by the speaker at the First Séance for Experimental Literature, Disney REDCAT Theatre, Los Angeles, and the participant at Kelly Writer’s House, University of Pennsylvania, Poet’s Lunch (both in November 2004):

I am the most boring writer that has ever lived. If there were an Olympic sport for extreme boredom, I would get a gold medal. My books are impossible to read straight through. In fact, every time I have to proofread them before sending them off to the publisher, I fall asleep repeatedly. You really don’t need to read my books to get the idea of what they’re like (…) (my emphasis)

The most boring books ever, written by an uncreative writer – surely this does not fit in our earlier scheme of things any more. Is the uncreative writer an individual or a collective? – it doesn’t matter. Boring to the author or to the receiver? – who cares! To better appreciate where we have arrived at, let us consider The Weather, a work where the one-time maker of wooden sculptures of books carefully transcribes one-minute weather forecasts of a New York radio station so that a paragraph is a day, the book a year.

One thing about the work is that there’ll be no shortage of ways to describe it in the most poetic of terms. It’s all about pinching the most ephemeral and ever-changing of phenomena down on to the permanence of a book that will have “an ever-lasting shelf-life”. It can be read as an epic of man’s desire to know things in advance – and about how the “now” of the predicted future actually never arrives, because always-already wrapped in new predictions (much the way John Lennon once put it: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”). It’s a book of four seasons; and of experiencing and expressing the passing of time: “later Thursday, Thursday night, into Friday morning”. It’s easily a work where its originator, the husband of video artist and painter Cheryl Donegan, and father to Finnegan, now 5 years, is at his most lyrical. At the same time, it amply fulfills the old requirements of “making new” or “strange” (“you never thought” how much social commentary, repetition, numbers, local gossip, world politics, rhythm, you name it, a series of weather forecasts could contain). With all it’s “uh’s” and “er’s”, it adds a chapter into theorizing about the nature of copying/transmitting. It’s about (pre-)thinking globally, (re-)acting locally. As writing per se, it is as dense, economical, non-predictable, and alliteratively beautiful (“enough snow to get the shovels and plows out again”) as you can get.

The other thing is that there seems to be almost nothing in the execution of the work to account for all these marvels. This is actually very unlike to Day, which is easily viewed as a Duchampesque “framing appropriately” – hence all the found poetry in it, the abrupt shifts of language, the changes in emphasis, context, and valorization as compared to the “original”, not to speak about the “sheer quantity” aspect… Not so with The Weather where, I think, there’s nothing that an average New Yorker could and would not have encountered in the course of her or his normal life. So much so that one is tempted to see the new book as an effort to deliberately out-date much of what has been put forth as a critical justification of it’s predecessor. It is here that the devotee to the Cagean idea of “giving up control of things in both life and art” finally betrays even his Khrushchevian¨ heritage: better not to let even a donkey’s tail to intervene.

So, instead of trying to salvage the work to the innovative tradition of avant-garde writing and art, I think we’d do better to (at least) try to take some the above-quoted affirmations by the grandson of grubby merchants, not rabbinical scholars, at their face value. What, in other words, is the meaning and import of uncreative, boring writing?

4.

I will content myself to pointing to three dimensions where this questions seem to lead us, each ripe with new riddles and enigmas…

The Outside of Text. As we know, the 20th century thinking about art and language has foregrounded the notion of the inside of language – as in Wittgenstein’s “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, or Derrida’s a bit more straightforward “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”. Without trying to question this tendency in any way – on the contrary, it is the belief of the present writer that the true import of some of these insights is still to be to dawn on us – let us face the fact that the very idea (not to say concept) of “conceptual writing”, put forward by Craig Douglas Dworking and others, in some subtle ways challenges the very notion of “everything happening inside the text”. At least there is an urge to disentangle the two parts of the idea, leading us to ask whether the “concepts” of the “conceptual literature” are still to be viewed as linguistic ones – or are we, rather, witnessing a return to the idea of a non-linguistic, outside-of-text “thinking” that then seeks for an “expression” in a (neutral?) medium of language? And if so, what is the import of this happening today? One can think of several periodizing responses here, one of them being the argument of “literature’s lagging a century behind visual arts” often put forward by our present artist (not to be confused with the Professor of Violin at the Shepherd School of Music), while an other attempt at an explanation would stress the changes going on in our very present “textual conditions”. To me, the latter seems more fruitful. It may be that the question of “outside of text” is actualized exactly by our now being surrounded by, or immersed in, “vast amounts” of text that perhaps cannot be exhaustively theorized as Wittgensteinian language games (or Derridean “writing”) any more (because of being increasingly dynamic, machine- and/or reader-generated, etc.). This would lead us to interpret the work of the example of stretching the envelope, not so much as interventions into writing and poetry from the other arts (they are distinguishable, after all) than as an unscrupulous carrying-forward of some themes in the specific tradition of poetry and poetics – including the idea of mimesis: after all, they are, also, images of our present “being-in-text”.

The Esthetics And Ethics of Experimental Writing. This one connects to the age-old notion of “Making New”, and the seldom explicated dilemma between the attempt to avoid “non-traditional” forms, techniques, patterns, and subject matters, on one hand, and the commercial, alienating logic of “the market” with its continuing call for “newness”, on the other. I’m tempted to interpret the remark by the Senior Editor of PennSound (“I don’t have a problem in doing the same thing twice.”) in this light. It still seems to me that the general esthetics of experimental/conceptual writing demands the artist to surprise, to challenge all expectations, to renew oneself from work to work – a demand amply satisfied, as we’ve seen, also by the differences between, say, No. 111, Fidget, Soliloquy, Day, and The Weather. At the same time, there’s an almost Nietzschean ethics (of “eternal return”) operative in the non-interventionist ideal of the conceptual literature. Instead of trying to be fresh, concentrate on doing only what you’d be happy to do again, and again…[2] This is the source of the minimalistic impulse inherent in this tendency: the dictate to surprise by surprising as little as possible (after all, it’s better for the concepts to be thin like thinking, instead of ample as language). It remains to be seen whether the promised sequel to Day that will incorporate the New York Times of September 11, 2001, will come to constitute a move into this direction – or rather to open up a fresh field of “applied Goldsmith” (no, we haven’t used this name in the body of the text so far)[3]? Either way, it’s a move (“I’m going out of the boring business”, the will-be begetter remarked in December 2004), so still squarely in the eternal circle of “Making New”.

The Social Question. One of the questions addressed in our February discussions was about the social value of this kind of work. I confessed to Kenny, the recent conceiver of Cheryl’s and his second child (for he was no other) being myself still a believer in “the value of valuelessness”. As I’ve said, or will say, elsewhere, the freedom of art is the absolute precondition for the freedom in society in general. It is one of the paradoxes of our present situation that the relevance of this maxim is, possibly, more easily felt in small, peripheral, provincial Finland, where it – precisely for these reasons – will have much less impact or import (sadly no sale here). In US again, a country where the future of the freedom in our world is the most at stake, and in various ways, the artist is perhaps more likely to see his/her work as “nothing” even in this larger perspective. Then again, the very notion of value of valuelessness of course contradicts the idea of proving this value in any given way. For an artist like Kenneth Goldsmith, the only absolute is his or her own work, and it is precisely for this reason he has constantly to question its value. In this, he is ultimately no less alone than Keats with his scribblings, and we’ll have little difficulty in imagining him, too, saying to himself – the receiter, among others, of The Last Acts of St. Fuck You by Ben Porter – in the midst of an all-night copy-pasting session: “I should [go on with my work] from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the [Art? Nothingness? Poetry? Beautiful?] even if […] no eye ever shone upon [it]” (my emphasis) – and this latter condition now in a very literal, not only imagined, meaning.

With this, I think we have returned to our earlier square of boxes, hopefully a bit dimmed and vaporized now. After all, it only conceptualizes (parts of) the mystery of Art and Poetry – which my younger American brother continues to celebrate, albeit with a difference. It is a difference that, upon each new work, requires one to refrase a certain age-old question, thus:

“Well, yes, it is cool… But are you sure it is not Art?”

October 15, 2005

1 I’m tempted to identify the former pair with the exchange value, the latter again with the use value of art.

2 I’m indebted to Rauno Räsänen for this “ethical” reading of the idea of Eternal Return.

3 My own work, Päivä (Day) has been framed as “applied Goldsmith” by some, me included. It is that, and then again, “it is a completely different concept”.

Additional resources

“Nude Media, or Benjamin In the Age Of Ubiquitous Connectivity”, my discussion with Kenneth Goldsmith (Tuli&Savu Net, November 2002)

“Of the Help Her Art”, my Google Poem based on a sentence by Kenneth Goldsmith (and there’s also a reading by Microsoft Mike)