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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Unskilling, uncreation

Photograph: courtesy of and Jef Bettens of Herk-de-Stad, Limburg, Belgium.
As Jef Bettens and do not ally themselves with long-dead Duchamp
or with Kenneth Goldsmith, I here acknowledge their rights to this work!

According to its author, I have neither to credit nor to do anything but claim as my own the passage about "uncreative writing" below. But as I do not wish to claim it, I will say that it comes from an article by Kenneth Goldsmith, "It's Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It's 'Repurposing,'" published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the tenth anniversary of 9-11.
Goldsmith was a RISD-educated sculptor for a decade until he shifted over into conceptual poetry. His Duchampian recent books are Sports (Make Now, 2008), Traffic (2007), and The Weather (2005), transcriptions of a baseball game, traffic patterns, and the weather. He retyped the New York Times for a single day to make his book Day (2003.)
These days he is a professor at The University of Pennsylvania (the avant-garde got in bed with the academy long ago), where he often teaches a course called "Uncreative Writing." According to Goldsmith, "the students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing. Not surprisingly, they thrive. Suddenly what they've surreptitiously become expert at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness. . . ."  He claims that "even when we do something as seemingly "uncreative" as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother's cancer operation. It's just that we've never been taught to value such choices."
Take a look at the excerpt or article.  Any thoughts?


Goldsmith:   Over the past five years, we have seen a retyping of Jack Kerouac's On the Road in its entirety, a page a day, every day, on a blog for a year; an appropriation of the complete text of a day's copy of The New York Times published as a 900-page book [that's Goldsmith's book Day]; a list poem that is nothing more than reframing a listing of stores from a shopping-mall directory into a poetic form; an impoverished writer who has taken every credit-card application sent to him and bound them into an 800-page print-on-demand book so costly that he can't afford a copy; a poet who has parsed the text of an entire 19th-century book on grammar according to its own methods, even down to the book's index; a lawyer who re-presents the legal briefs of her day job as poetry in their entirety without changing a word; another writer who spends her days at the British Library copying down the first verse of Dante's Inferno from every English translation that the library possesses, one after another, page after page, until she exhausts the library's supply; a writing team that scoops status updates off social-networking sites and assigns them to the names of deceased writers ("Jonathan Swift has got tix to the Wranglers game tonight"), creating an epic, never-ending work of poetry that rewrites itself as frequently as Facebook pages are updated; and an entire movement of writing, called Flarf, that is based on grabbing the worst of Google search results: the more offensive, the more ridiculous, the more outrageous, the better.
These writers are language hoarders; their projects are epic, mirroring the gargantuan scale of textuality on the Internet. While the works often take an electronic form, paper versions circulate in journals and zines, purchased by libraries, and received by, written about, and studied by readers of literature. While this new writing has an electronic gleam in its eye, its results are distinctly analog, taking inspiration from radical modernist ideas and juicing them with 21st-century technology.
Far from this "uncreative" literature being a nihilistic, begrudging acceptance—or even an outright rejection—of a presumed "technological enslavement," it is a writing imbued with celebration, ablaze with enthusiasm for the future, embracing this moment as one pregnant with possibility. This joy is evident in the writing itself, in which there are moments of unanticipated beauty—some grammatical, others structural, many philosophical: the wonderful rhythms of repetition, the spectacle of the mundane reframed as literature, a reorientation to the poetics of time, and fresh perspectives on readerliness, to name just a few. And then there's emotion: yes, emotion. But far from being coercive or persuasive, this writing delivers emotion obliquely and unpredictably, with sentiments expressed as a result of the writing process rather than by authorial intention.
These writers function more like programmers than traditional writers, taking Sol Lewitt's dictum to heart: "When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art," and raising new possibilities of what writing can be. 
For more from the "original" article, go to the link above.


  1. Self-annointed enfants terribles are so boring.

  2. The interesting (if that is the right word) thing is that he has an academic platform--he is at Penn, and this article comes from the Chronicle, and he has even published in "Poetry" (essay and poetry.) How can you be avant garde and own the academy?

    I read somewhere that he claimed that writing was 50 years behind visual arts and that was why he was taking Duchamp as his leader (clearly he's not strong on math, as that puts us back to only 1961.)

    I am awfully tired of people insisting on "progress" in art. I mean, we each make our art, whatever it is, and we can't help but be of our time and stamped by that fact. But that is not "progress."

  3. Oh, he's just putting us on. I hope. Otherwise, the whole shtick is rather pathetic. And, even so.

  4. Actually I did think he was putting us on the first time I encountered him.

    But now I think he is as clever as Warhol in how he is using the system. He's got Marjorie Perloff and Poetry and the Chronicle and piles of "books."

    And what about how he is being embraced... He's not at Podunk U, unnoticed, and publishing in some stapled kitchen-table production.

  5. There might be something worthwhile in "retyping" or plagiarizing or appropriating other folks' work if the thief actually READ the words he was stealing. But most of the time (as all good teachers know) they just copy and paste--. If you ask the average student plagiarist specific questions about the text ("Why did you use this particular word? What do you mean in this sentence? Are you saying this . . .") he or she will be all blushes and stammers. Your questions are apt to be the first actual encounter with the word he or she is claiming to have written!
    --Mary Bullington

  6. PS Idiocy like this is one of the reasons I left academia.

  7. I agree with you about the so-called avant garde, in poetry at least. But is there a chance that sometimes it might be meant to bring self-consciousness into these acts of appropriation?

  8. Hey, beats workin'.

    (Actually it doesn't: it's difficult for me to imagine the people doing these things as happy, interested, or interesting. But then I've never understood why people who have nothing to say get all torqued about it. So say nothing: what's hard about that?)

    What Penn is thinking of, I couldn't say.

  9. Mary,

    One example of his assignments in that class was to appropriate the work of another and then present and defend it...

    I sometimes think of going back because I have two children in private colleges, and I liked teaching (although giving it up right after tenure probably didn't suggest that!) But English departments don't always seem so appealing these days. And I actually don't think academia a fruitful place for a writer. So I would have mixed feelings.

  10. Robbi,

    I don't think I really said what I thought of the avant garde, not wanting to prejudice any readers! I simply presented him and his own words.


  11. Dale,

    Part of it is to be talked about and get other people to talk about you (and along the way to get published in "Poetry" and "The Chronicle of Higher Education and get a plummy job out of it all!) One has to be able to talk wittily about it all as well.

    I think I'll go read Gulliver's Travels now.

  12. Ah, so you're another recovering academic? There are people doing great work in academic jobs, but I really don't know how they do it: I'd sink like a stone.

  13. Dale,

    I have always felt that I could do two big things well but not three.

    I got my tenure in five years (two years early) and promptly quit because I was faced with three things: doing a good job of teaching; my writing; starting a family and raising children.

    But I also think the academy a dangerous place for a writer for a whole lot of reasons. If you had a plummy one-and-two or two-and-two job, you might manage everything, but most people don't have it. And one would still be faced with certain situations that are not good for writers...

  14. For anybody who wants to see more about Kenneth Goldsmith, his "word processing," and his ideas:

    Down in the scullery we find Goldsmith's books boring (as he finds them), but we don't have that much fun talking about them either.

  15. And this one is particularly interesting in an audaciously boring sort of way:

  16. I have begun typing The Grand Academy of Lagado chapter from Gulliver's Travels. I am finding it highly meaningful.

    Chapter V.

    The author permitted to see the grand academy of Lagado. The academy largely described. The arts wherein the professors employ themselves.

    his academy is not an entire single building, but a continuation of several houses on both sides of a street, which growing waste, was purchased and applied to that use.
    I was received very kindly by the warden, and went for many days to the academy. Every room has in it one or more projectors; and I believe I could not be in fewer than five hundred rooms.
    The first man I saw was of a meagre aspect, with sooty hands and face, his hair and beard long, ragged, and singed in several places. His clothes, shirt, and skin, were all of the same colour. He has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers. He told me, he did not doubt, that, in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate: but he complained that his stock was low, and entreated me “to give him something as an encouragement to ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear season for cucumbers.” I made him a small present, for my lord had furnished me with money on purpose, because he knew their practice of begging from all who go to see them.
    I went into another chamber, but was ready to hasten back, being almost overcome with a horrible stink. My conductor pressed me forward, conjuring me in a whisper “to give no offence, which would be highly resented;” and therefore I durst not so much as stop my nose. The projector of this cell was the most ancient student of the academy; his face and beard were of a pale yellow; his hands and clothes daubed over with filth. When I was presented to him, he gave me a close embrace, a compliment I could well have excused. His employment, from his first coming into the academy, was an operation to reduce human excrement to its original food, by separating the several parts, removing the tincture which it receives from the gall, making the odour exhale, and scumming off the saliva. He had a weekly allowance, from the society, of a vessel filled with human ordure, about the bigness of a Bristol barrel.

  17. hmmm. when borges wrote a story about someone who made his career doing this, he couched the act in such a way as to not make it seem... appealing, as a choice.

    why would such a thing be one's goal?

  18. Oh, Pierre Menard! Yes. Hard not to think of that one.

    To flip our usual ideas about art and education and plagiarism and so forth upside down and be, as Laura says, an enfant terrible?

    To promote the end of art, so that there is no longer anything to write about because everything is used up?

    To be outrageous and in doing so mock and emphasize the recent trends in the academy that have ousted literature from his former place?

    To scorn truth and beauty and goodness?

    To publicize himself?

    To destroy?

    To make a name for himself by antics?

    To pronounce the end of art and story?

  19. "I am not stealing this. I am simply moving it from one place to another place."

    It is not defensible or indefensible, but it is very disrespectful to use someone else's work and then present it as one's own.

    That has nothing much to do with art, (avant garde or otherwise). It has more to do with manners and respect for other people and their strengths (writing, in this case).

    People can wrap it up in as fancy a way as they will. I have no time for it.

  20. Yes, it is the wrapping that is "important."

    The way Warhol soup cans or Warhol S&H green stamps were dependent on the conversaton, the shock, the controversy, the tedious fascination.

  21. Perhaps because there is SO much 'content' in the world - people turn their attention to the wrapping instead?
    LIke... spoiled children who have everything they want, we no longer recognize the importance of what we have?

  22. Definitely. Although I suppose he is saying that he does recognize a thing's importance when he steals, appropriates, etc.

  23. "homenaje a cesar paladion" (borges)
    and it was written in 1963, so actually, this guy is even copying the idea of copying the writing of others...

    (sorry, i couldn't remember the title yesterday.)

  24. zoe,

    Interesting. I'll have to dig out my Borges. What a mess, that office!

    I was thinking of a better known story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." Do you know that one? It is a sort of document--critical essay--about a supposed twentieth-century writer and how he struggles to get past making a simple translation of "Don Quixote." Well, you probably know it. But then he re-makes, re-writes the book exactly as it was. So that one is very appropriate (so to speak) to somebody who believes in "appropriation" and plagiarism and not adding anything to the world.

    I was thinking about your maquettes this morning! Liked those.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.