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Unwritten Books

I’m not really well versed in avant-garde literatures. I’ve read a bit of the OuLiPo writers, one of Christian Bök’s books, &c. Not too much, and I don’t really find much more of it to be that intriguing — though occasionally something strikes my interest, it is a rare occurence. (First aside: I love the technique of using heteronyms, though.) (Second aside: I’ve taken to declaring, when among more civilized company, that I am a philistine.) But back when I thought it incumbent on me, as wouldbe poet, to follow the latest gurgles in literary currents I subscribed to Bookforum; I was still an undergraduate. Since then my subscription lapsed and I’ve lost the urge to be a poetic sensation. Last fall I renewed it inspite of having not read an issue since I left for France. Apparently my post-France self is not as much intune with Bookforum’s editorial style — or perhaps just not as awed by the scholastic tone of the articles. I find myself bored with most of the article topics and disagreeing with many of the reviewers. The editorial focus seems occasionally adolescent (COMIX! SEX! GRAR!) and the reviewers often seem like awestruck fankids. Or hipsters, which is worse. I do of course come across books that I want to read, like the Lazarus Project, but I’d have come across that anyway. I won’t be resubscribing, that is to say.

The latest issue came last week and I thumbed through it last night. As usual several of the authors are completely new to me, and there are a couple I’ll probably look into at some point. Eventually my flipping opened up an article called “Uncreative Writing,” which discussed Kenneth Goldsmith, his practice and library. I suppose I should be honest and say that I decided to read the column because its catchline declared writing “unreadable books” to be Goldsmith’s goal. At any rate, I read it.

While Goldsmith himself is interesting enough — he writes avant-garde poetry, he started UBUWEB, he has a nice hat — there is nothing redeeming or interesting, in and of themselves, about his latest books. In and of themselves: these books that he wrote, or, better, notwrote, are simply transcriptions of other pieces of text. One book, Day, is a transcription in book form of one edition of the New York Times, reproduced word for word — every word! Another, Weather, is a year’s worth of retyped weather reports. This is why Goldsmith claims his books are unreadable: all they are is raw text, which has been typeset, printed and bound (or, if you like, downloaded for free on the net: slap them on your kindle, yuppies). Who would want to read this? Not me, certainly! Some people claim to have done so, and others seem to purchase hardcopies of his work. I am forced to wonder why.

As I am forced to wonder why Goldsmith receives critical accolades for Day or Weather. He has done nothing, really. He simply processed, transcribed. The work may as well have been automated. And as our concept of poetry bears in it a necessary component of subjective action — we wouldn’t call the the automated arrangement of the phonebook a poetic successes — why would we call Day one? It is curious. But apparently it works well enough to garner the best sort of currency in artworld markets. Judging from Goldsmith’s exposure in Bookforum, the sharp clothes he’s wearing in the illustrative photo, he certainly isn’t a starving artist (of course, his continued exposure may be a result of his previous efforts, UBUWEB and elsewhere).

The reception of Day tells us something about concepts unfolding in a vein of contemporary aesthetics. It’s an evolution of aesthetic practice in the vein of the exquisite corpse or found poems. The writer is not supposed to be a conduit for or master of language but only a receptacle. Writers does not write per se, they shape, or “manage” in Goldsmith’s language. The content of their work is not important, so much as its form: what is in Day does not matter so much as it was made by Goldsmith. In a specific manner, etc. “To make people think.” This is a sham, of course, because if the goal were actually to get people to think about the qualitatively profound aspects of their quotidian lives, or the importance of the weather, or whatever else, it could be achieved in far more efficient means for a far wider audience. Day and Weather are engaged in a specific tradition with a slim audience; “to make people think” about the day or the weather is only the performative declaration of their stated goal, and is changeable into whatever ideological target is necessary. We could be made to think about God, racism, or orgasms.

The problem with this stated goal is that it is wholly superficial. I can pick up any copy of any newspaper and look at it as much as I will look at Day, reflecting on either profoundly or not, but only the latter is a book of poetry. It has the proper form, while the newspaper is… just a newspaper. And there is something in the constitution of Day as poetry that is bound up in the practice of the contemporary art world, art as intellectual/immaterial product. I’m not sure exactly how to flesh it out just yet.

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2 Responses

  1. fearing a rant of proportions that have those who follow the pure life call me manic – this piece could do it – i shall simply state that it looks like some writers feel so bankrupted that they have sunk to art - art meaning that which is called so has no real worth in the world – and instead of working on many levels have, in this add/hd world, purged all complexity. they have chosen to make work that is only important to those other sods who make art and publications that feed on the general public’s well founded scepticism and feeling stupid. BOOKFORUM was spawned from ARTFORUM - pronounced fart hareem – that is so self referential that not even die hard artists read it.

    i feel responsible – i like spatial poetry, i like the serendipity of words that come together by chance creating new meanings but – like you - it could be the romantic in me that feels that some sort of editing should happen.

    the sad aspect of this is the lack of realisation that DAY would be considered conceptual art and thus one doesn’t need to repeat it with WEATHER and i am pretty sure it has been done before.

  2. It’s such an extreme one liner though. Or also. I’m not sure how to feel about it, whether I should see it as everything you just said but with a however! or with an and this too! “We should think about these things” is so cheap that even the super jaded artsy insiders should feel turned off by it.

    I’m thinking though that this approach to simple lifting of information as if it could be merely copied and pasted, as is done in Goldsmith’s books, is indicative of a new sort of conceptual frame. The free floating in-itself-ness of the newspaper merely copied as data, as if this could even conceptually tell us anything about a Day merely by being so transcribed, I think, is a new sort of move. It ties in with lots of other movements that I see playing out right now, through my own manic goggles.



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