The Poet and Founding Editor of UbuWeb Discusses Preserving, Abusing, and Expanding Creativity
Kenneth Goldsmith is a poet and practitioner of "uncreative writing." His books include transcriptions of newspapers (
), traffic reports (
), and, most recently, radio and television reportage of "deaths and disasters" from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the death of Michael Jackson (
Seven American Deaths and Disasters
). True to form, he also has a fascinating book of essays and manifestos,
. His other projects include an edition of Andy Warhol's interviews, and UbuWeb, an indispensable online archive of experiments in text, sound, and video.
I corresponded with Goldsmith for one week in March. I asked rather aggressive questions, and he responded thoughtfully and generously.
Here's a possible starting point. Why do you call it "uncreative writing"? This term feels like a mistake to me. For one thing, it's not true; in your own words, "clearly the opposite is true" (Uncreative Writing, 120). You are constantly making new things, and getting them into the world. You have inspired numerous others to undertake similar experiments, which is an unmistakable sign of creativity: the things that you make provoke other people to make other things.
If "uncreative" is meant to distinguish your writing from the kind of writing that happens in other writing workshops, or from the sort of thing that creative directors do in advertising, then I think you're making a strategic mistake. Why would you allow the great human trait of creativity to be defined by activities that, in your view, are not producing anything of value? If you are looking for "something new, something contemporary, something — finally — relevant" (9), why do you eschew one of the best words in the English language for talking about these values?
Where I'm coming from is that I think "uncreative" is one of the worst things you can say about a work of art or a person.
Creativity is about the most worn out, abused concept for something that, as you say, used to mean something remarkable, something that differentiated someone, something that made them special. It's a term that's been usurped by the "creative class" by people like Richard Florida and reduced to a based concept that has come to stand for the opposite of creativity: mediocre, middle of the road, acceptable, unadventurous, and so forth. So that creativity is no longer creative. What was once creative is now uncreative.
By calling a practice uncreative is to re-energize it, opening creativity up to a whole slew of strategies that are in no way acceptable to creativity as it's now known. These strategies include theft, plagiarism, mechanical processes, repetition, and so forth. By employing these methods, uncreativity can actually breathe life into the moribund notion of creativity as we know it.
Of course modernism used these strategies and they were proven fairly resistant to co-optation by mainstream culture. So you're starting to see a lot of these inverted terms emerge to describe various attempts to re-envision cultural production like Marjorie Perloff's Unoriginal Genius and Against Expression, the title of the anthology of conceptual writing that I edited with Craig Dworkin.
Your response reminds me of one of the lessons of Andy Warhol, as reported by Dave Hickey: "Never attack what's wrong when you can praise it in the wrong way." On that account, if creativity is being abused, one way to save it would be to celebrate uncreativity as you do. But I'm not sure that I agree with Hickey's interpretation. You know a lot more than I do about Warhol—was that actually his plan? I would be surprised to learn that Warhol believed there was anything wrong with the things he praised.
Everything Warhol said was both right and wrong. He was nicked named "Drella"—a combination of Cinderella and Dracula—for this reason. Warhol embraced contradiction and was one of the first (and still one of the only ones) to deploy it as an artistic strategy. This is the reason we're still fascinated with him so many years later.
Our disagreement about creativity may be superficial. We both want art to be adventurous, only we use different words to say that. We may have a deeper disagreement about history. Your genealogy of creativity is impressively sordid—the word has been "worn out," "abused," "usurped," and left "moribund" by the creative class and their ilk. To me, that's a strange picture of history. That the meaning of a word could be worn out.
I would suggest a different genealogy. The term "creativity" was coined by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose genius is well documented. Alice Toklas had a bell in her head that made a sound every time she encountered a genius. It went off three times: the first time she met Stein, the first time she met Picasso, and the first time she met Whitehead. This is a legacy that I would not want to consign to Richard Florida without a fight!
When you say that creativity has been "usurped," or when you say that "there's no turning back" (Uncreative Writing, 227), or when you say, with Brion Gysin, that literature is "fifty years behind painting" (13), you're doing something that I don’t understand to history. At best, you're putting literature in the uncomfortable position of having to take its cues from another art. In fact, you're writing bad propaganda for painting as well as for literature, because you're cutting off the real source of their energy, which is the entire history of art before fifty years ago.
So, let's go back a hundred and fifty years ago to the invention of the camera, which forced painting to rethink its mission of representation, thus leading to abstraction, then into full blown modernism. I'm a technological determinist and tend to view things through this lens. Hence, my interest in the Internet and how it is completely changing writing in ways that the camera forced changes to painting. This time, though, writing is not headed for abstraction, but towards mimesis and replication, thus the enormous amount of appropriation and copying in recent writing, at the same time forcing questions of authorship for literature in ways that that the art world dealt with a hundred years ago.
There are other ways of telling the story of painting's response to photography. I might point out that many artists today still use painting as a medium for representing images; on the other hand, abstraction was a resource for painters long before modernism. To tell a more complicated story, I might refer to Judith Goldman's notion of "medium envy." What if the effect of photography on an artist's imagination is to want to make paintings that look like photographs? Similarly, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe has argued that many of today's paintings want to inhabit the seamless surface of digital video.
But, again, I think we have a deeper disagreement than that. Your history of art moves in one direction, and has no use for what it leaves behind. Once the art world has dealt with a problem, the solution has no further interest for you. It's as though history were an account of actions, rather than works of art. In my view, the world of art does not consist only of what artists are making right now. It also includes poetry and paintings from one hundred and fifty years ago, and from one thousand years ago, and it includes a lot of lost and forgotten artworks. These artworks are not only valuable in themselves (and our culture has many ways of recognizing their value), but are also the primary resources for making more art. The least relevant works from the past are likely to be the most exciting and productive examples for future works of art, because works that are merely culturally relevant, that reproduce what is already in the culture, tend to get boring quickly
The resurgence of conceptual writing in our literature takes its bearings from Warhol and LeWitt. It also recalls the output of the 17th-century poet John Dryden. I have always thought of Dryden as a conceptual artist, because he puts all of his imaginative energy into the prefaces to his poems, and then the poems themselves are rather perfunctory and workmanlike. The preface to "The Hind and the Panther" is brilliant! Dryden enthusiastically describes his plan to allegorize religious schisms by espousing different beliefs in the voices of various animals, and, further, to use different registers (high, low, and middle) in the three sections of the poem. So far, energetic and fascinating. Then you turn the page and start reading the poem, and nothing could be more dull.
Unlike you, I'm not confident in my ability to predict the future. I would challenge one of your predictions, however. "One thing is for certain," you say, "it's not going away" (227). I would say just the opposite: it's definitely going away. If I know one thing about the history of art, it's loss. Everything is going to be lost. If conceptual writing ascends to a position of cultural relevance, then it will feel tiresome to later generations. After it’s forgotten, it will be potentially interesting again, and perhaps it will return in a different form.
I think you have a much more generous and broader sense of history than I have. I feel I've had to impose a sort of subjective and probably incorrect notion of progressive linearity to simply be able to proceed with my project—one thing rendering another useless—which as you say, will eventually include the movement that I've helped to create. I think that having a broad historical sweep and scope can be detrimental to the process of art making—I'd even call it paralyzing. Everything you've just said is, in fact, correct and if I had to really to take it into account, I'd never be able to get out of bed in the morning. So instead, I've carved out a mental space and narrative in which I can work.
At one point in Uncreative Writing, in a discussion of your interest in objectifying speech as writing, you retell a story from Rabelais, who imagines a battle taking place in conditions of such extreme cold that the sounds of fighting freeze and remain on the battlefield until spring, at which point they finally thaw and become audible. In effect, Rabelais is imagining a process, refrigeration, for recording sound and playing it back. This is especially interesting because Rabelais's world included a lot of technologies for capturing images, but not a lot of technologies for recording sound. (Maybe none at all, unless you count poetry.)
As a technological determinist, you don't believe that Rabelais is trying to do the same thing that you are doing, only using different devices. So what does someone like Rabelais, or Boswell, or Herbert mean to you?
Those are all authors that in some way I've found permissions for my own work. Again, my sense of historical importance is tied to my own needs (this, by the way, is the problem with UbuWeb: it's my own subjectivity that informs the history of the avant-garde there and it's in no way reliable, although many take it to be so). What I look for in the work of others is precedent, someone who says, say, in the case of Herbert: poems don't only have to be lineated, they can also be visually shaped. Or Boswell, who makes the claim that a plate of eggs that Johnson eats in the morning has the same importance as a key battle during of Seven Years' War. So to the point, Boswell has given me the permission to level history in ways that, say, proper historians would chafe at.
I know that Jackson Mac Low's poetry is an important precedent for conceptual writing, so I assume that his exclusion from Uncreative Writing must have been deliberate. Why didn't you want him to be part of the discussion?
Jackson—a major figure and influence — is in Against Expression. In Uncreative Writing I've chosen to focus, instead, on Cage whom inspired Jackson to do his aleatory writing—and yet Cage claimed it was Jackson who inspired him to being his mesostics and move chance operations into writing. So Jackson is a complicated figure, historically speaking. I recall Robert Ashley telling me that one time in the early 70s, he ran into Jackson on the street and, in Bob's words, he was despondent — here was this great writer who found himself at this time without peers and context. Luckily, the Language Poets, who claimed Jackson as their own, were just a few years away, which gave Jackson a second life, so to speak. He's this visionary writer who just couldn't quite find his groove. There's a lot of backstory with him, and our lives were so personally intertwined—he was a very dear friend—that I just couldn't write about him with the objectivity that he deserved.
In the afterward to Seven American Deaths and Disasters, you observe that transcription is a highly personalized act. 15 people, transcribing the same recording, will produce "15 unique and individual pieces" (174), evidence not just of creativity, but of expression. Your personal style of transcription has some marks that I have learned to identify. You are clearly interested in places where polished, accomplished speech turns into incoherent speech. Mistakes, corrections, silences. Places where speech becomes denuded, as you say in Uncreative Writing. I imagine you are interested in these moments because you are a very verbal person, and also because, like many of the voices in Deaths and Disasters, you have some experience as a radio announcer. Can you talk about the decisions that you make in transcribing a voice that other transcribers might not make?
I did radio for 15 years on WFMU, the greatest freeform independent radio station in America. During that time, I became intensely aware of and began to play with the role of the broadcaster and the voice. Over the years, I adopted voices that weren't mine, spouted opinions that I didn't believe in, put out reams of disinformation, lied incessantly and so forth, just to play with the structures that are rarely questioned in the broadcast environment. It was fascinating. Why? Because I could. No one ever tried to stop me, so I just kept on doing it until towards the end, the whole thing became a critique and thorough deconstruction of the radio medium. As a result, I hear media differently than others do simply by virtue of having been inside of it for so long.
One of the most consequential decisions you make in Deaths and Disasters is where each of the seven chapters begins and ends. What kind of criteria do you use? It's striking that some but not all of the chapters begin before the death or disaster gets into the transcript. Is this an arbitrary decision, based on the length of the recording or the word count of the transcript? Or do you have an intuitive sense of where to start and where to stop?
I try to stop on something dramatic. In the JFK assassination, I end when his death is finally announced. The aircheck goes on a bit longer, but this is not real life: it's real life edited, a hyperrealism, and a fiction. Literature is reality reframed, and it's the framing that makes all the difference regarding the success or failure of conceptual writing. These days, too much conceptual writing as misunderstood as a permission to cut and paste the entire internet and publish it, unedited, hence the reason for so many terrible books.
Do you think of Deaths and Disasters as a work of history? The book deals with significant events in the recent history of the U.S., after all. It might be called a chronicle rather than a history, in that its perspective is so low to the ground. I mean, it doesn't quite stick to the chronology of events, but rather to the order in which speakers receive information about the events. Or the book might be called a memoir, in that all of the events occur in your lifetime.
And yet I choose to call it poetry. Why? Because then it doesn't have to be anything. Memoirs are full of subjective holes; history is full of objective holes. Conceptual writing though, if thoughtfully framed and executed, really can't fail, thus avoiding some of those pitfalls. Peli Grietzer, claims that conceptual writing can be evaluated by an "aesthetic of sufficiency." In order to succeed, a book must simply fulfill its requirements — no more, no less. If I set out to, say, retype a day's issue of The New York Times, and I actually do just that, then the book is a success. But if I begin to get "creative" with the text, I overdo it the book fails. Likewise, if I skimp on the task—omitting certain portions of the text—the book also fails. But if I accomplish what I set out to do, the book is a success.
Door By Kenneth Goldsmith
It is a door. Thirty inches wide by eighty inches tall, one and a half inches thick. It appears to be solid wood, faced with a tightly-grained, lightly-colored oak veneer, one quarter of an inch thick on both sides. It is hinged in two spots on the left side. The lower hinge is seven and a half inches from the bottom of the door. The upper one is the same distance from the top edge of the door. There is fifty eight and three-quarters inches between the top and the bottom hinges. The hinges themselves, made of brushed aluminum, are three and a half inches long and an inch and a half wide, with an additional quarter of an inch overhanging the left side of the door's edge. The hinge is sunken, in line with the surface of the wooden door, snuggled next to the edge of the quarter-inch veneer. The door is hung one inch above the floor so that the right big toe can slide under it, grazing the hairs on the knuckle joint as it passes. On either side of the head, an inch and a half above, and three and three-eighths inches to the left and right, two small holes appear. Both are one thirty-second of an inch in diameter. The left hole is sixty-five and five-sixteenths of an inch up from the bottom edge, and fourteen and five-eighths of an inch down from the top. The right hole is sixty-five and seven-sixteenths of an inch up from the door's bottom edge, and fourteen and a half inches down from the top. The left hole is nine and three-eighths of an inch in from the door's left edge. The right hole is eleven and five-sixteenths of an inch in from the door's right edge. The two holes are nine and an eighth inches apart from each other. Two additional one thirty-second of an inch holes appear above the first set of holes. The upper left hole is one and seven-eighths of an inch from the center of the right cornea, and the upper right hole is four and one-sixteenth of an inch from the center of the left. The left hole is three-quarters an inch from the crown of the head, and the right is two and a quarter inches away. The left upper hole is five and one-sixteenth of an inch away, at a one hundred and thirty-three degree angle from the lower left hole, and twelve and fifteen-sixteenths of an inch away, at a one hundred and sixty-six degree angle, from the lower right. The right upper hole is fourteen and one-sixteenth of an inch away from the lower left hole, at a ten degree angle, and five and nine-sixteenths of an inch away, at a thirty-three degree angle, from the lower right. The upper left hole is five and fifteen-sixteenths of an inch away from the left edge of the door, ten and five-sixteenths of an inch from the top of the door, and sixty-eight and five-sixteenths of an inch from the bottom edge of the door. The upper right hole is six and three-quarters of an inch away from the right edge of the door, eleven and one-sixteenth of an inch down from the top edge of the door, and sixty-eight and seven-eighths of an inch up from the bottom edge of the door. What appears to be another thirty-second of an inch hole is a half-inch away from the right edge of the door, thirteen and three-sixteenths inches from the top edge, sixty-seven and five-eighths of an inch from the bottom, six and three-eighths inches away from the upper right hole, at an angle of one hundred sixty-three degrees, twenty-three and three-eighths of an inch away from the upper left hole, at an angle of one hundred seventy-eight degrees, ten and three-quarters of an inch away from the lower right hole, at an angle of one hundred ninety-three degrees, and twenty-three and five-eighths of an inch away from the lower left hole, at an angle of eighty-seven degrees, turns out not to be a hole at all, but merely a speck of dirt. The tone of the door is horizontally gradated, modeled fields of alternating yellows and tans with brown streaks distributed across. The streaks are, in fact, wood grain that, when observed closely, change hues depending on the way the light in the room reflects off of them. With body on center, head and eyes gazing upward, the sheen of the grain consistently remains a dark brown. However, rotating shoulders and neck sixty-four degrees to the right, the grains on the right side lighten to an almost invisible whitish tan. Yet a turn one hundred and twenty degrees to the left finds those same grains much darker, taking on an almost walnut hue. The density and character of wood grain varies across the plane of the door. To the far left they are the width of a hair, ranging in length from five-eighths of an inch to one and three-quarters inches, spaced apart from each other an eighth to a quarter of an inch. Beginning at the left edge of the door and moving three and a quarter inches to the right, the grains are virtually invisible, only slightly darker than the yellowish oak of the background plane. Moving horizontally, another three and a quarter inches to the right, there is a six and seven-eighths inch band of dense fibers, creating an illusion of a darker, nut-brown totality, the density and darkness of the hairs making it so. These darker grains return at half-inch intervals, punctuated by rivulets of light tan stripes. At ten inches in from the left edge, a light chocolate band, five-eights of an inch wide, begins at sixteen and nine-sixteenths of an inch from the top edge and descends fifty-four and three-quarter inches, where it flares and fades into the predominant field of yellow oak before dead-ending at the door's bottom edge. Fourteen and a quarter inches from the left edge, a thirteen and thirteen-sixteenths of an inch neutral field occurs, with vertical grains spaced at regularly occurring quarter-inch intervals, which gradually merge with a series of overlapping, translucent dark-hued inch and a quarter oblong spheres that extend one and three-quarters of an inch to the right edge of the door. These spheres, comprising a field in their totality, turn out to be fingerprints. The field, beginning forty and a quarter inches from the bottom edge, extends eight and three-eights of an inch toward the top edge of the door and is offset from the right edge in a wavy pattern, vacillating from three-quarters to one and three-eights of an inch from the right edge. A silver handle hits the top of the pubic line, two and a half inches on center from the right edge. Nestled atop a three-inch diameter circular brushed aluminum base, a protruding lock juts out, pressing into the flesh of the right arm two inches above the wrist bone. The base contains two screws, set on center, each a half-inch wide. The screw on the right side, a Phillips head, is sunk one-sixteenth of an inch below the surface of the base. The screw of the left side, also a Phillips head, protrudes an eighth of an inch above the surface of the base, showing itself to be rounded. A rod, three-quarters of an inch in diameter, extends three and a half inches, its tip ending in a smooth, concave depression. A metal dowel, presumably the locking mechanism, one-quarter of an inch long and three-eights of an inch wide, emerges three and one-sixteenth of an inch from out of the depression, pressing into the flesh surrounding the right pelvis bone. Four fingers of the right hand, index, middle, ring, and pinkie comfortably fit in the crook of the silver handle, thumb dangling off the edge. The meaty flesh of the outer right hand molds itself to the curvature of the handle, spilling over the edge, lending the hypothenar muscle a lazy, billowing, pillow-like appearance. A three and a half-inch latch gently curves in toward the door, extending one and seven-eighths of an inch at a one hundred and ten degree angle, leaving a space of three-eighths of an inch between the end of the handle and the surface of the door. The door handle casts a shadow in the shape of a u. The left vertical of the u extends, on its outer edge, four and three-quarters of an inch, the inner four and one-quarter. The outer and inner edges meet at the top, forming a peak, which gradually expands to a width of three-eighths of an inch, before melding into the bottom horizontal part of the u. The upper line of the bottom part of the u gently slopes and curves in an elongated form, at an eight-degree angle toward the outer edge of the door. The upper lip of the bottom horizontal area of the u is doubly shadowed three-eighths of an inch, matching perfectly the curvature of the lower. The horizontal sector of the shadow is thusly divided into two parts, the upper and the lower. The upper shadow is twice as dark as the lower, but the lower is twice as thick, increasing from three-quarters of an inch on the left side, to one and a half inches as it approaches the right edge of the door. Two and thirteen-sixteenths of an inch from the outer edge of the u is a darker-hued shadow, that of the metal dowel, half an inch long and a quarter of an inch wide. That dowel casts a second shadow, one-quarter of an inch thick by three-quarters of an inch long, sloping at a downward eighty-three degree angle toward the right edge of the door. Casting the darkest tone on the door is the shadow that extends from the bottom of the circular brushed aluminum base at a length of three and five-eighths of an inch, sloping eighty-three degrees downward toward the right edge of the door. The outer edge of the upper right side of the shadow is five and a quarter inches long, then curves left to articulate the bottom edge of the u. Three-quarters of an inch to the left of the shadow's outer edge is a stain. It appears to be the remnants of a liquid drip that begins forty-three and seven-eighths of an inch from the top edge of the door, and ends twenty-five and three-quarters of an inch up from the bottom edge of the door. The drip is rounded at the top, proceeding three-quarters of an inch at a one hundred and thirty one degree angle, then dropping ninety-degrees for another quarter-inch, before swerving yet again one hundred and thirty degrees for a full inch to the right, finally dropping ninety degrees for five and seven-eighths of an inch toward the bottom of the door. At its start, the drip is five-sixteenths of an inch wide, shrinking at its narrowest to three-sixteenths of an inch during its second inch-long, one hundred-thirty-degree swerve, where it gradually widens to a quarter. The drip terminates asymmetrically, the right edge falling three-sixteenths of an inch below the left.